Marijuana Commission's Carlos Roman Defends Panel's Choices


“I don’t extort my friendships for money or favors,” says Dr. Carlos Roman, the Little Rock anesthesiologist and pain management specialist who has found himself in the storm of controversy surrounding the state’s issuance of licenses to grow medical marijuana.

Roman (pronounced “Roh-MAHN”) is one of five members of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, which in February announced its top five choices to receive the the first licenses since voters approved the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment in 2016. He called Arkansas Business last week to dispute what he calls the “false narrative” about his scoring of the applicants and defended the honesty of the commission.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen on March 21 declared the state’s process for choosing growers unconstitutional. Griffen said the commission and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, which assisted in the application process and will enforce the laws on medical marijuana, had defied “due process and the rule of law.”

Two companies whose cannabis-growing applications were rejected sued the commission, claiming its scoring of all 95 applications was arbitrary and capricious. One of those companies is Naturalis Health, whose managing member is Jackson T. “J.T.” Stephens III, a grandson of the late billionaire financier Jack Stephens.

Naturalis’ lawsuit said that Roman has an “extremely close personal and professional relationship” with Dr. Scott Michael Schlesinger.

Schlesinger is a part owner of Natural State Medicinals Cultivation, one of the five chosen to receive a license.

Naturalis also said that Fayetteville lawyer Travis Story, another commission member, had a conflict of interest in the grading of the application of Osage Creek Cultivation, which also was picked to receive a license. Story and his law firm have done legal work for Jay and Mary Trulove, the owners of Osage Creek.

Griffen cited an appearance of bias in the scoring of the applications and made note of the relationships between Roman and Schlesinger and between Story and the Truloves.

Roman, who said he called Arkansas Business because he trusts the newspaper not to distort his words, explained that four of the five commissioners scored Natural State Medicinals as the top-rated applicant, and the fifth commissioner, Story, rated it among his top choices.

“The reality was that that was just the best application,” Roman said. “The best applicant was seen to be that way by all of us.”

In addition, he said, the scoring differential among applicants wasn’t as high as it appeared, addressing the allegation that Roman had “scored one applicant vastly higher than all the others.”

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Roman gave Natural Medicinals a score of 98. He told Arkansas Business that commissioners could score applicants only up to 90; the 10 points above that were based on “preset merit scores.” Merit points were awarded to an applicant for having more than 60 percent Arkansas ownership, for minority or veteran ownership, that kind of thing, Roman said.

“The point spread that people have advertised is false,” he said.

And as for his scoring of the other applicants, Roman said, the score sheets directed commissioners to rate applicants as “not qualified,” “underqualified,” “qualified,” “very qualified” or “extremely qualified.” He found most applicants to be in the “C” range, “qualified.”

“I did the task that was assigned to me,” Roman said. “I took average to be average.”

“I think it’s important that people, instead of assuming malfeasance, should assume that we actually, myself included, I actually know exactly what I’m doing and have learned quite a lot about this industry and have graded accordingly,” he said.

‘Rich and Successful’
“You had a hundred applicants of very rich and successful people, and they’re not going to take losing easily, right? From the standpoint of any applicant, they only had a 5 percent chance of making it, just based on sheer odds.”

(Several high-profile residents of our small state have connections to companies seeking to enter the medical marijuana business. Among them — in addition to Stephens — are former state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose Natural State Wellness Enterprises was among the five chosen to receive licenses; retired state Court of Appeals Judge Olly Neal; Stephen LaFrance, former executive vice president of USA Drug of Pine Bluff; Joseph Courtright, former CEO of USA Drug; and Johnny Allison, chairman of Home Bancshares Inc. of Conway.)

As for reports that he has referred patients to Schlesinger, Roman said, “he’s less than 2 percent of my refer basis. If you look at financial disclosures, I have no ownership of anything associated with Dr. Schlesinger. I have ownership with other physicians around the state and other ventures, none of which are associated with Dr. Schlesinger.”

Roman added: “The idea that there was corruption there — Dr. Schlesinger is a friend of mine and he’s a good citizen, but there’s no corruption there. He’s apparently a very fractional owner in this whole enterprise as it is.”

(According to Natural State Medicinals Cultivation’s license application, Scott Schlesinger owns 5.66 percent of the company and his wife, Dr. Kelli Schlesinger, owns 10.07 percent.)

“I’m the CEO of the largest private-practice anesthesia group in the state of Arkansas,” Roman said. “I run a $20 million company and I do business with an incredible number of physicians. I would almost have to recuse myself from playing this role at all just based on my business is a big business. I run a large business.”

‘No Shenanigans’
Roman said the issue of medical marijuana is “much bigger than me,” adding, “To hold this process up for these types of selfish reasons is an affront to the citizens of Arkansas.”

The patients should come first, and he’d be happy to throw out his score for Natural State Medicinals, Roman said, though he noted it wouldn’t change the outcome. “But if that would satisfy the judge or anybody else, then do so.”

Roman praised the professionalism of his fellow commissioners. “There have been no shenanigans.”

“No system’s going to be perfect, but I think this system was honest, and I think that’s the best you can ask for,” Roman said.

The Arkansas attorney general’s office has said it will appeal Griffen’s ruling.