Some 220 Arkansas patients have already received medical marijuana registry identification cards, less than a month since state Department of Health (ADH) officials began accepting applications to allow citizens to obtain pot by prescription for medical purposes.
Still, it could still be several months before patients can gain access to medical cannabis with the likelihood that cultivation and dispensary facilities to grow and sell will not be operational until early 2018 or later.
ADH began accepting applications for medical marijuana registry identification cards on June 30. As of July 21, ADH spokeswoman Karen White told Talk Business & Politics, there have been 222 completed and approved applications since state health officials began receiving those submissions at the beginning of July. That tally is updated by ADH every Friday, White said.
Storm Nolan, spokesman for the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association (ACIA), said he is not disappointed with the number of patient ID applicants because the deadline is still nearly two months away.
“There won’t be any medical cannabis available probably until early next year,” Nolan said. “I don’t think people are in a rush, but we are trying our best as an association to get the word out to patients to get their applications in now so when the time comes, there won’t be a flood to (ADH) and there won’t be big delays.”
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission has also published the requirements for submitting bids for up to five operators to grow and cultivate medical marijuana under the constitutional amendment that was approved by voters in the November 2016 election. The commission also began accepting those applications on June 30 with the final deadline being Sept. 18. State policymakers have said they expect the first sale of medical marijuana in Arkansas to take place in early 2018.
Under the Freedom of Information Act provisions for the medical marijuana regulations passed into law during the recent 2017 legislation session, state open records law exempts the Commission from releasing any information that might give an advantage to one competitor or bidder, said former Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration (ADFA) spokesman Jake Bleed.
“We don’t want applicants to FOIA competing applications in an attempt to gain an advantage. For that reason, we will not be releasing any information derived from applications until the application window closes in September. I can tell you the number of applicants however. So far, that number is zero,” said Bleed, who is now part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s communication team.
And although there have been no applications submitted to the state over the first 30 days, Nolan said he is not overly concerned about the process. The Fort Smith-based real estate developer, who still plans to file an application for a marijuana cultivation facility in Fort Smith, said some prospective bidders for the cultivation facilities also are concerned that some of their information might be “FOIA-able” once the Commission receives their applications.
“We don’t want people to be concerned like there is not going to be an industry. There are going to be plenty of applications,” Nolan said of the five cultivation facilities and 32 dispensary licenses the state plans to award.
Once applications for cultivation licenses are delivered to the Commission, those accepted will be time-stamped and applicants must then submit a payment voucher for the required fee of $15,000. Applicants will be able to modify a submitted application at any time prior to the final deadline, which will be subject to the state FOIA act. Applicants must also provide proof of assets or a surety bond in the amount of $1 million and proof of at least $500,000 in liquid assets.
Sara Gullickson, CEO and founder of DispensaryPermits.com, said she has consulted with several companies preparing to file applications between now and the Sept. 18 deadline. Gullickson was actively involved in Arkansas’ legislation draft process and advocated for a merit program instead of a lottery for selection of the cultivation and dispensary licenses at the Commission’s public hearings.
She told Talk Business & Politics that the application process is competitive and costly, suggesting that applicants could spend up to $100,000 to submit a bid for a license.
“That makes it imperative for applicants to plan ahead and exercise due diligence,” she said.
Besides Arkansas’ stringent financial standards, bonding requirements and drafting requirements for cultivation and dispensary licenses, applicants must also submit an exhaustive essay and blueprints concerning their projects, go through rigorous background and credit checks, and provide pro forma financial projections for the operations of marijuana growing facilities and retail locations.
Gullickson said her consulting firm, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is working with a limited number prospective clients in Arkansas and helping them wade through the demanding applications process. In the past, her firm has provided dispensary and cultivation consulting services for numerous medical pot applicants across the U.S., including California, Florida, Hawaii, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“Right now what is happening is that a lot of the applicants are needing to start to prepare not only the application sides of things and get their investors vetted, but put together their 25-page narrative section to showcase to the state how their facility is going to work,” she said. “I think the one thing that people kind of wait on is putting these plans together and then they become this really labor-intensive process. So Sept. 18 is a really health deadline to get everything done, but we are obviously we are urging everyone to get it done sooner, rather than later.”
Once all the applications are completed by the fall deadline, Gullickson said there will be an “anxious” waiting period and lull between the time Commission grades the submissions and announces the winners.
“That’s when the real work starts,” Gullickson said. “Right now everything that we are doing now is like playing ‘pretend.’ It’s like we are writing a college thesis paper and kind of getting everything in line. And once (ADH) pulls the trigger on us, then we have to take everything we’ve been playing pretend on and turn into an actual real project.”
Like Nolan, Gullickson said she believes there will be a robust list of candidates submitted to the Commission in advance of the September deadline. She said up to 75 legitimate candidates could emerge from the process which will make Arkansas’ medical cannabis industry a model for surrounding states.
“So those are the real numbers, but if you talk to people in Arkansas at a dinner, a social event, or even some of these public hearings, everybody and their brothers … or 50% of the population is applying,” Gullickson said. “When it comes down to the actual real players that have the investment, who have the real estate to really pull this off, we will see about 15 people apply for every license that is awarded.”
The medical marijuana expert, who also provides business development and planning services for cannabis entrepreneurs after the application process, said the industry will take on a new life once cultivation farms and dispensaries begin holding “grand opening” ceremonies a year from now.
“I think right now that is too far in the future for people to wrap their brain around,” she said.