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Medical Cannabis: Allies Back a Proposal for GrowthLock Icon

5 min read

Arkansas industry members, patient advocates and the author of the amendment that legalized medical marijuana in 2016 are rallying in support of a new constitutional amendment proposal that they hope will double the state’s medical marijuana market.

The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Amendment of 2024 would make it easier for Arkansans to get medical marijuana certification and would legalize recreational sales if the federal government makes cannabis legal.

The amendment would preserve the state’s existing dispensaries, cultivators and processors, who hope to increase the market of nearly 100,000 card-holding patients to roughly 200,000 by dropping a $50 state fee and making cannabis cards good for three years rather than one.

The ballot initiative would also let health care professionals decide if marijuana is good medicine for patients with any medical condition. Current rules require a diagnosis with one or more of 18 qualifying conditions. Pharmacists, physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners would also gain the right to “prescribe” marijuana, and patients and caregivers would be able to grow a few plants at home.

Bill Paschall

“If your health provider believes that you can benefit from the use of marijuana, that’ll be a decision between patient and doctor, or patient and health care professional,” said David Couch, the lawyer who drafted 2016’s Amendment 98 and collaborated on the new proposal. “I think it’ll make it where a lot more people will be able to have access to the medicine.”

The group behind the new amendment, Arkansans for Patient Access, asked Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin to review its language and ballot title this month. Bill Paschall, executive director of the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association, worked out compromises in the proposal with Couch and patient advocate Melissa Fults and others.

‘Good for Patients’

Fults and Couch opposed an industry-backed 2022 recreational marijuana amendment that failed at the polls, calling it a money grab by dispensary and cultivation facility owners.

“The recreational proposal was going to hurt patients,” Fults told Arkansas Business. “It gave no more accessibility to patients, and as a matter of fact would have made recreational marijuana more accessible than medical. Some patients are driving two hours to buy at dispensaries, so the home grow [provision] is important. This amendment also makes it a three-year card instead of one, and patients won’t have to pay that $50 to the state.”

Fults said she and her colleagues had been working nonstop with the cannabis industry for eight months to make sure patients were heard in shaping the proposal.

The ballot proposal would reverse changes to Amendment 98 that the Arkansas General Assembly made — laws that were struck down last year by Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Morgan “Chip” Welch. Griffin has appealed that ruling, and the new amendment proposal would make the issue moot.

“The General Assembly tinkered with the original medical marijuana amendment in ways that were inappropriate,” Couch said in a telephone interview. “I think that one of the biggest things was to undo some of the restrictions that have hampered patient access to the medicine they need. Even though they’re in litigation, it’s best to just get rid of them.”

Couch said lawmakers had no reason to outlaw sales of pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes, for example, or to ban most advertising by dispensaries. “Liquor stores can advertise; pharmacies can advertise,” Couch said.

“Allowing more patient  access and obviously just expanding the medical market, we are 100% on board with it,” said Matt Shansky, owner of the ReLeaf Center dispensary in Benton County.

“I think it could completely change the way this industry is operating, not just from a retail or cultivator perspective, but also from a patient perspective. We continuously hear about these barriers day in and day out,” Shansky said in a telephone interview.

‘A Lot of Feedback’

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from patients,” said Paschall, owner of Paschall Strategic Communications of Little Rock.

He took over leadership of the Cannabis Industry Association in 2020. “We heard from patients anecdotally, and we did some polling to find out why patients don’t obtain a medical marijuana card.” He said the group saw strong consensus on a number of barriers to the system. “We think if this amendment passes, we’ll see more folks out there obtaining cards to deal with their medical conditions using marijuana.”

The three-year card idea came from New Mexico’s medical marijuana program, and Paschall noted that about 6% of New Mexico residents have patient cards in comparison to 3% of Arkansans.

“We’re stretching that out and eliminating that fee, which we believe is one of the biggest barriers out there now,” Paschall said. “We think this will alleviate some of that headache.”

The new amendment might bring participation up to 5% or 6% in Arkansas’ cannabis program, Paschall said.

“The goal of this ballot proposal is to reaffirm and build upon Amendment 98 to better serve patients,” said a statement by Amy Martin, who owns The Greenery dispensary in Fort Smith. “This amendment reflects a commitment to the principles established by the state’s voters. It reduces barriers and streamlines processes so qualifying patients can access the medicines and treatment options that best serve them.”

The cannabis industry is a significant economic force in Arkansas, but some rural dispensaries are struggling. Total sales since spring 2019 surpassed $1 billion last year, when annual marijuana purchases totaled a record $283 million. The previous record, from 2022, was $276 million.

The state has 38 dispensaries, eight cultivators and nine licensed processors.

Sales taxes on marijuana totaled $31 million last year, coming from the 6.5% sales tax on dispensary sales and a 4% privilege tax on wholesale cannabis sales by cultivators. As of Jan. 13, Arkansans held 97,635 active patient cards, up from 89,855 in January 2023.

Growing Each Year

“In late 2023, Arkansas’ medical marijuana industry surpassed $1 billion in total sales since the first dispensary opened for business,” said Scott Hardin, spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration. “From $31 million in sales in 2019 to $283 million in 2023, the industry has grown each year. The $25.6 million spent in December was the largest monthly amount in 2023.”

The proposed new amendment would allow health care providers to see medical cannabis patients via telemedicine, and would let dispensaries sell to out-of-state residents on the authority of their patient cards from other states.

Couch said dispensary advertising could spur competition and offer patients bargains. “You could look at three or four dispensaries live online and say, oh, this store has a better deal on this product,” he said. “I mean, it’s just capitalism. I can’t believe any Republican opposes that.”

If marijuana possession is legalized on the federal level, or if the federal government erases cannabis from the Schedule of Controlled Substances, the amendment would legalize recreational marijuana sales by currently licensed dispensaries and cultivators.

If the attorney general approves the ballot language and title, supporters will have until July 5 to gather and turn in 90,704 signatures from Arkansas voters to put the initiative on November’s ballot.

If the amendment gets onto the ballot, Fults and Couch have high hopes it will pass.

“You know, it will really fix the medical program,” said Fults, who owns Fults Dairy Farm in Hensley. “It will bring patients out of the shadows who have been left behind. I think it’s going to be great for Arkansas, and great for patients. I’m excited about it.”

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