Dispensaries have been lighting up sales since amendment’s passage
In November 2016, voters approved Amendment 98, adding Arkansas to the growing list of states that allow the cultivation, processing, sale and possession of marijuana for medical purposes.
Four and a half years later, dispensaries throughout the state are open and selling all manner of marijuana-based products; a handful of cultivators are growing cannabis; thousands of Arkansans have been issued medical marijuana cards; jobs have been created; and tax dollars are rolling in. By just about any measure, the state’s foray into medical marijuana has been a success.
“It has exceeded our expectations on a variety of levels,” said Scott Hardin, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees medical marijuana operations in the state. “On any given day, Arkansans are spending roughly $890,000 on medical marijuana. It’s only a matter of time until that number hits $1 million a day.”
It has not been easy getting to this point. For many years, the concept of legalizing marijuana for any type of use in Arkansas was controversial. By 2012, an initiative to legalize it for medical purposes made it to the November ballot, where it was narrowly defeated. In 2016, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016 passed with 53.2 percent of the vote.
The program was beset by legal problems from the start, with lawsuits flying and even an injunction that brought the whole program to a stop for several months, while legal challenges to the way licences were being issued was sorted out. It wasn’t until May 2019, two and a half years after the amendment passed, that the first dispensary opened.
“To say that there has been quite a bit of litigation surrounding medical marijuana would be a huge understatement,” Hardin said. “There have been lawsuits from Day One, and that continues today.”
Despite the legal wrangling, the program is booming.
“It’s been overwhelming,” said Matt Shansky, CEO of ReLeaf Center in Bentonville. “It has exceeded every expectation we ever had.”
ReLeaf Center was one of the first dispensaries when it opened in August 2019 and has been one of the top sellers in the state for the past year. The amendment allows for up to 40 dispensaries. So far, 33 dispensaries are operating, with five more licensed and preparing to open. Two licenses have yet to be issued.
Before COVID-19 ReLeaf was getting 200 to 300 patients in the door per day. Shansky said that figure had doubled by the peak of the pandemic. He attributes some of the growth to an increase in anxiety and stress brought on by the global health crisis, but also a general increase in people’s willingness to try natural alternatives to conventional medicine.
According to Hardin, the state estimated that about 1 percent of the population, or 30,000 Arkansans, would obtain a medical marijuana card. Today some 76,000 cards have been issued, which is the number that was expected to be reached when the market for medical marijuana was mature. Patients in the state have spent about $303 million to buy 45,200 pounds of medical marijuana products and in the process, have paid out about $31 million in taxes.
Legalizing medical marijuana has been a success for people suffering from any one of 17 qualifying medical conditions. A patient doesn’t get a conventional prescription for medical marijuana but obtains a card from the Arkansas Department of Health, which allows the patient to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana every 14 days.
“That’s the beauty of this system,” said Dana Woods, the consulting pharmacist at Fiddler’s Green Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Mountain View. “A lot of these patients are worn out. They have a problem, and it’s not being solved by conventional medicine, so they turn to medical marijuana. Once they get that card, they don’t have to go to the doctor to renew an opioid prescription. The patient is now in charge, and they feel better because they have some control. It’s control of your health care, and that’s what everybody needs at some level.”
Dragan Vicentic is CEO of Green Springs Medical in Hot Springs, which opened in May 2019, the first medical-marijuana dispensary to open in Arkansas and one of the top sellers in the state.
“It’s just amazing how many people come in and tell us their stories about how they’ve cut down on their opioids or weaned themselves off an opioid and replaced it with a more natural product, like CBD flower or THC,” he said. “They thank us for being able to supply it to them.”
Probably the biggest challenge dispensaries face today is a general shortage of product, particularly of the more popular strains of buds. Many dispensaries hear complaints from patients about high prices, especially compared with other states, some of which have fewer restrictions than Arkansas.
The amendment allows for five cultivators and three “substitutes,” to be licensed as needed. Vicentic was one of the first to notice a shortage of product as more dispensaries opened. He was one of several who testified before the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, which licenses the dispensaries and cultivators, urging it to allow the three additional cultivators to be licensed. Those three have been licensed, and people in the industry are expecting to see a downturn in prices and wider availability of product when the new cultivators come online.
The medical marijuana program is not without its critics. One of the biggest criticisms is the 4 percent “privilege” tax collected from patients in addition to the usual 6.5 percent sales tax. (The privilege tax goes to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock for the establishment of a national cancer institute.) The limited number of cultivators and other restrictions imposed on the industry by the amendment have resulted in relatively high prices. Critics question the wisdom of imposing an extra tax on an already pricey medical product.
“It’s bad enough that we pay three times more than any other state in the nation that has legal medical cannabis,” Melissa Fults, spokesperson for the Arkansas Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told Arkansas Money & Politics in April. “I am furious that the legislature is putting high taxes on top of that. Too many of our patients are on fixed incomes and are too sick to work.”
Rhonda Scott, manager of Bloom Medicinals in Texarkana, was disappointed with the state’s decision to end telemedicine appointments, which enabled patients to remotely obtain the necessary referral letter from a physician so they can get medical marijuana cards.
“That was a hard hit,” Scott said, noting that it was a convenience for patients, particularly in Texarkana, which does not have a lot of physicians who will write referral letters for medical marijuana.
The cost of driving a long distance for a referral letter is a barrier to access for some patients, and others are housebound and unable to travel. The state allowed telemedicine appointments during the pandemic but did away with them on March 31, when the governor’s declaration of the public health emergency expired. “I know they’re fighting that battle now, hoping it will be put back in place,” she said.
Scott sees good things in the future for the medical marijuana industry in Arkansas, especially as more cultivators come online. She also sees the general stigma of marijuana use fading, if slowly, as patients come from a wide range of ages and walks of life.
Shansky is also optimistic about the future of the industry.
“We’re just getting started,” he said. “The industry is so immature at this point, but it’s evolving every day. My outlook at this point is for growth. I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s to come. As more cultivators come online and more patients continue to get registered, I think we’re only going to see exponential growth over the next few years.”