By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
When you go to school to be a doctor or a pharmacist or a lawyer, you have to learn how to drink from a fire hose – do a lot of work and absorb a lot of information quickly while bearing important responsibilities.
Good thing that pretty much describes the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, the appointees who will have a little more than a month to create rules for the growers and dispensers authorized by the Medical Marijuana Amendment, which voters passed in November.
The five members of the commission – which includes two doctors, a pharmacist and a lawyer – held their first get-to-know-each-other meeting Dec. 12. About all they otherwise accomplished was electing a chairperson, Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman, a surgical oncologist, and agreeing to meet again on Dec. 20.
They agreed on that date remarkably fast, which is a good sign because the amendment legalizing medical marijuana doesn’t allow much time for fruitless debate. Rules must be in place 120 days from the Nov. 8 election, which would be March 9. But because a public comment and legislative review are required, the rules must actually be drafted by late January – in other words, a little more than a month from the commission’s next meeting.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and the Department of Finance and Administration are drinking from their own fire hoses while crafting their own rules and regulations. And when legislators go into session early next year, they’ll be reviewing those rules and passing their own laws to alter the amendment, which they can do with a two-thirds vote. One pre-filed bill by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, would add 60 days to the timeline. But the Legislature doesn’t go into session until mid-January, and the commission and the affected agencies can’t assume House’s bill will pass.
There’s never been an issue like this in state history. As Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s spokesperson, J.R. Davis, often says, Arkansas is in the process of creating a miniature Food and Drug Administration. And let’s not forget that while marijuana is legal at least medically in 29 states and the District of Columbia, it’s still illegal in the United States of America. The only reason states are passing these laws is the Obama administration made it clear it would look the other way, but President Obama is leaving office next month. President-elect Donald Trump has said he favors medical marijuana, but his pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is a staunch opponent.
So that means that Hutchinson, at one time the head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, is leading a state government trying to quickly legalize a drug that’s still completely illegal under federal laws – laws that soon may be enforced again. He’s also trying to administer a program he campaigned and voted against. At least two of the Medical Marijuana Commission members also are known to have voted no.
Eighty-four of the state’s then-135 legislators publicly expressed their opposition prior to the election, though some of them won’t be returning to office. That’s almost two-thirds, and with a two-thirds vote the Legislature can change the amendment so much as to make it virtually meaningless – for example, by tacking on such high fees that few could afford the drug. But that probably won’t happen because there’s another number that will be hard to ignore: 68,505, which is how many more Arkansans voted for the Medical Marijuana Amendment than voted against it.
One other thing that’s kind of interesting about Arkansas’ passage of the amendment: If you look at the map, the states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes mostly are on the coasts and along the country’s northern and southern borders. Arkansas is the first Bible Belt state to say yes unless you count Louisiana and Florida, which probably would be a stretch in both cases.
If a conservative state like Arkansas will vote to legalize medical marijuana, then perhaps any state will next. Well, perhaps any state except Utah, home to a large Mormon population, and maybe Alabama, home of Sen. Sessions. He’s soon to be attorney general of the United States, the nation’s top law enforcement official. Did I mention he’s really opposed to marijuana?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.