The medical marijuana program in Arkansas has been an economic success story with sales of $258 million from between mid-2019 when the first dispensary opened through March. Sales are averaging $716,900 per day.
But patient proponents say people have to pay far more than surrounding states, and many have to travel long distances to visit one of the 32 dispensaries in the state. They are also critical of the state’s decision to end telemedicine appointments to obtain a referral letter from a physician on March 31, and the legislature’s decision to continue giving millions in cannabis taxes to a National Cancer Institute (NCI) program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
“Arkansas has a huge excess in marijuana taxes,” said Melissa Fults, spokesperson, Arkansas Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Rather than use that excess to reduce costs for sick and dying patients who have to pay for their own medicine, for the second year the legislature has decided to earmark that excess to NCI.”
Cannabis products are taxed twice. Dispensaries pay four percent to cultivators, and then patients pay an additional four percent. Fults said taxes bring in more than $12 million a year when it costs less than $2 million annually to run the program.
“It is bad enough that we pay three times more than any other state in the nation that has legal medical cannabis,” Fults said. “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. We’re second-class citizens. We are treated like we are dirty and have no value. NCI is all about chemo and radiation, and I don’t see an excise tax on them.”
Fults would like to see the excess marijuana taxes to support research into the medical uses of cannabis such as research done in Israel investigating the use of cannabis as an effective alternative to chemotherapy for certain cancers.
Marijuana patients are required to have a yearly visit with a physician who will write a letter confirming the patient has a condition that qualifies for medical marijuana in order to get a card allowing access to a dispensary. There were some deadline extensions during the coronavirus pandemic that may have confused people.
“A lot of people don’t realize their card was expired until they go into a dispensary,” Fults said. “Then they had to make another appointment at a doctor costing $150 to $300. The patient doesn’t receive any notices about renewals.”
Fults said the legislature doesn’t respect cannabis patients.
“When it saved my son’s life, we met a lot of people whose lives had been saved,” she said. “But the state legislature treats us like drug addicts and low-life scumbags. The prices are horrendous and the fact that the sick and dying should pay for the legislature’s pet projects is horrible.”
Regina Smith of Eureka Springs wears her medical marijuana card around her neck almost like a talisman. She has neurological Lyme disease that causes tremors that make it difficult to function.
“Medical marijuana is the only thing I’ve found that helps me and it is very expensive,” said Smith, who is an artist. “I am not afraid to speak about what helps me the most. I can function as a normal person with the weed. I want the right to grow my own medical marijuana.”
Dr. John House, Medical Canna Clinic, Eureka Springs, said the two complaints he hears most often from patients is the cost and the paucity of dispensaries.
“I hear both of those frequently by almost every patient,” House said. “A less common complaint, but one I still hear often, is that patients aren’t allowed to grow their own plants. In my view, there are three competing interests: first is profit from
both dispensaries and growers, second is the legislature’s continuing efforts to undo the law completely, and third are the patients who just want to use an effective treatment, legally and at a fair price.”
Fults is critical of the state not yet opening all the dispensaries and delaying licensing of the number cultivation facilities allowed under the law. Three more cultivators that have been approved out of the eight allowed. Storm Nolan, River Valley Relief,Fort Smith, said one of their intentions is to grow cannabis efficiency to help reduce costs for patients.
“Prices are really high,” Nolan said. “For a patient to manage a chronic condition like pain or cancer, oftentimes they have to consume a good amount of it and it is expensive. We hope to start growing this summer and it will be several months before we are able to sell product.”
One family quoted recently in an article about medical marijuana in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette said they were considering moving to Oklahoma to afford their medicine.
“People moving out of state isn’t good for anybody,” Nolan said. “It isn’t the full reason, but it doesn’t help that the state charges four percent taxes at every stage. I was surprised it got such little attention that revenues from the medical marijuana program were given to the NCI. I don’t think there is an easy communication method between patients and the legislature. I think if the legislators knew what patients were going through, the legislators would be a lot more thoughtful.
“I guess the legislature thinks there are a lot of kids out there getting high. That is not what I’m seeing. It is people who legitimately need it. If our lawmakers heard more of these stories, they would be more inclined to try to help patients. In addition to telemedicine to help people get a card without potentially being exposed to Covid, they could create a way for someone with a chronic condition to get a five-year card or a lifetime card. That would be a super way to help people.”
Nolan predicted once his facility and two other cultivators come on line, and expansions are completed at existing cultivators, prices should come down. And he said a lot of people are looking forward to working at River Valley Relief.
“We will start in the range of 40-50 employees,” Nolan said. “If able to grow like our competitors, that could grow to well over 140.”