Future Of Medical Marijuana In Arkansas All In Amendment Arkansans Voted In

Dec 19, 2016

The personal limit for loose marijuana set forth by the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment is 2.5 ounces.
Credit Arkansas Public Media

For most questions on Arkansas's Medical Marijuana Amendment, the refrain from the state's Department of Finance and Administration as well as its Department of Health has been consistent and continual: the answers are right there in the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.

"'How do I get a cultivation facility? How do I get a dispensary?'" Jake Bleed, spokesman for Finance and Administration, parrots. "The answer to that question is, check back in a couple of months because we don't know that answer."

"What I've seen is people are, and understandably, interested to know what we're going to come up with," said Marisha DiCarlo over at the health department, but so far the department has only released a first draft of rules and regulations.

Meanwhile, the 24-page amendment authored by Little Rock attorney David Couch, will stand in for agency protocol. And the amendment is awfully thorough. To wit: A landlord may continue to prohibit a tenant from smoking marijuana on the premises but not prohibit its ingestion in any form. 

At least twice, in the very beginning and at the very end, the amendment iterates the fact that marijuana — its sale, its use, its mere possession — is illegal under federal law, but section 3 of the amendment outlines a broad range of actions and possessions legal by this measure under state law at least, including propinquity to the drug, its consumption or paraphernalia. All paraphernalia associated with its use is likewise not subject to seizure.

How can that be? Well, marijuana legalization, both for medicine and recreation, has followed from the faith that the federal justice department will not prosecute a comparatively low-impact drug operation overseen by state health departments and policy makers, and popularly acceded to by an entire state's voting population. 

So far, that faith has been rewarded.

KNOWN UNKNOWNS

Behind closed doors, those charged with executing medical marijuana such as deputy director Ann Purdy at the health department or attorney Joel DiPippa at finance and administration are probably kicking around what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called "known unknowns," (as opposed to "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns"). These include who will win licenses to grow and sell — these are separate — medical marijuana, how it will be labeled, how many patients ultimately seek out the therapy, and what effect, if any, it will have on, well, everything.

"Actually, right before the election, we met to make sure the department of health was prepared, should it pass," DiCarlo said.

"This is not an FDA-monitored drug ... but we've been charged with" presenting it as other medicines are labeled.  "So part of what the Department of Health is doing through the rule writing process and then through the next steps where the drafts will actually come to be proposed and then go through the lengthy process to be approved — part of what we're doing is looking at what other states have done."

From mumps to hair salon/spa certification, the department of health is in the business of managing known unknowns. In order to uphold its duty next year to roll out medical marijuana, it will hire (or re-assign) 18 new staffers, two of which will be a chemist and an epidemiologist. The total cost is in the millions; more than $2 million is for the electronic technology build-out alone.

The department is also charged with creating an application process whereby other conditions — the amendment includes 17 medical conditions, including cancer, ALS, hepatits C, Crohn's and colitis, arthritis and fibromyalgia — may be petitioned and added.

"So when you look at the draft" already written, "there’s a section, the steps that may end up being proposed, so people have additional conditions considered."

MEDICAL MARIJUANA COMMISSION

At 3 o'clock Tuesday the Medical Marijuana Commission meets for a second time. For the first time it will begin discussing its one and only duty — picking the licensees to grow medical marijuana and, separately, to retail it (licensees are prohibited from doing both). That discussion will come just after deadlines the commission is to meet.

On Dec. 12, at the first meeting of the Medical Marijuana Commission, Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act director Melissa Fults sat in the front row. Also known as Issue 7, the "competing" medical marijuana ballot initiative was booted from the ballot by the state Supreme Court just days before the Nov. 8 election.

After the first commission meeting, Fults said, "You know, they made sure there was protections for the cultivation and dispensaries, but, no protections for the patients. We want to make sure there's a low maximum cost for patient's licenses. We want to try to get more qualifying conditions. We would like to see for the affordability clause to be installed. Like I said, we're here to make sure patients are protected."

It's not true that the amendment doesn't protect patients. The first full-length section of the amendment stipulates the protections for patients, including the fact that use of medical marijuana cannot hinder workers' privileges toward employment or promotion. A school or landlord cannot refuse enrollment or a lease based on medical marijuana use. A court cannot punish a parent who uses medical marijuana with denial of custody or visitation from her child.  

It also protects doctors, dispensaries and cultivators. It further protects counties' and municipalities' rights to self-rule (that is, an election whereby medical marijuana cultivation and dispensing may be prohibited). 

It prohibits doctors who may prescribe medical marijuana from holding any financial interests in either a cultivation facility or dispensary.

It expressly prohibits medical marijuana for inmates of the state's prisons. Meanwhile, private and government insurance plans are not required to cover it.

Finally, twice the amendment "acknowledges that marijuana use, possession, and distribution for any purpose remains illegal under federal law."

A pot-ential problem, to be sure, but one for the next presidential administration to weed through.