LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ medical-marijuana program is off to a mostly smooth start, observers say, but it has hit a few potholes in the road.
On June 30, the state Health Department began taking applications for registration cards to allow people with certain medical conditions to buy and use the drug when it becomes available, and the Medical Marijuana Commission began taking applications for licenses to operate growing or dispensing facilities.
By the end of last week, 65 Arkansans had applied for registration cards. No one had applied for a license to grow or sell medical marijuana.
David Couch, a Little Rock lawyer and the sponsor of the constitutional amendment Arkansas voters approved in November to legalize medical marijuana, said people may be waiting until close to the Sept. 18 end of the application period to apply for facility licenses.
“I would not apply (until) the end since there is a chance of your application being discovered and copied,” he said.
Joel DiPippa, an attorney with the state Department of Finance and Administration, said DF&A and the Medical Marijuana Commission will not disclose the content of any license applications while the application period is open, citing an exemption to the state Freedom of Information Act for information that would give advantages to competitors.
The medical-marijuana amendment allows licenses to be issued to up to 40 dispensaries and up to eight cultivation facilities. The Medical Marijuana Commission has said it will issue licenses for 32 dispensaries and five cultivation facilities initially, leaving open the possibility to add more later.
State officials have said they expect about 30,000 people to obtain registration cards. Applications will be taken year-round.
Melissa Fults of East End, who led a push for a rival medical-marijuana measure last year, said she believes many more than 65 people would have applied in the first week for registration cards if not for one problem.
“I get about 20 calls a day from people saying, ‘My doctor won’t sign, what do I do?’” she said.
The medical-marijuana amendment originally stated that to be eligible to buy and use medical marijuana, a patient must obtain a document signed by a doctor certifying that the patient has a qualifying medical condition and that in the doctor’s opinion, the potential benefits of using medical marijuana likely would outweigh any health risks for the patient.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature modified the requirement so that a patient only needs a document certifying that he or she has a qualifying condition.
“We heard from doctors early on that said, ‘I can’t make that decision (that the potential benefits would outweigh the risks),’” said Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, who sponsored the legislation.
Couch said that as the requirement stands now, there is no logical reason for a doctor to refuse.
“It seems illogical that they can’t certify that their patient has one of the conditions since they bill for it every visit and they certify to the insurance company, Medicare or Medicaid that the patient has the condition,” he said.
Fults said educations efforts are needed to let doctors know that the requirement has changed and that they will not put themselves at risk by signing the documents.
House said the biggest obstacle to the program he has seen is that would-be operators of cultivation facilities and dispensaries are having difficulty finding banks in the state willing to work with them. He said this is true even though some banks operating in Arkansas handle marijuana money in other states such as Colorado, California and New York.
“There’s a lot of money to be made by our bankers, and I’m ready for them to step up — and so are the people seeking permits. Otherwise we’re going to have warehouses of money guarded by … a bunch of guys that’s got guns,” House said.
The amendment legalized medical marijuana statewide, but the boards of directors of two cities, Hot Springs and Siloam Springs, adopted moratoriums last month on marijuana-related businesses in their city limits. Hot Springs’ moratorium is for 90 days and Siloam Springs’ is for 180 days.
“The moratoriums are unconstitutional,” Couch said.
The medical-marijuana amendment states that it “does not allow a city, incorporated town, or county to prohibit the operation of any dispensaries or cultivation facilities in the city, incorporated town, or county unless such a prohibition is approved at an election.”