Natural High: Arkansas Goes to Pot 

Medical cannabis sales are now booming in Arkansas. Can Tennessee be far behind?

In your mind, feel the weight of a frozen Thanksgiving turkey, say, a 10-pounder.

Imagine carrying five of them. Now, imagine it's not frozen turkeys but marijuana. 

Whoa, dude. Trippy. Sounds like some stoned fantasy wafting out of a freshman dorm. 

  • Jani Moore Photography courtesy of Ounce of Hope

But 50 pounds of legal cannabis was a reality — a legal reality — in Arkansas two weeks ago. Patients drove hours to line up at the state's first two cannabis dispensaries in Hot Springs on Friday, May 10th. A week later (at the close of business the following Saturday, May 18th), 52 pounds of medical marijuana had been sold. 

The Arkansas Department of Finance & Adminstration doesn't track specific patient numbers. Each sale is tracked by weight and individual cannabis strains purchased. So, if one patient buys an ounce of cannabis — a half-ounce of Banana Kush for anxiety and the other half in Pineapple Trainwreck for depression — state accountants consider that two transactions. 

So, in that first week, Doctor's Orders sold a total of 24.5 pounds of medical marijuana through 2,171 transactions. Green Springs Medical missed the first two days of sales, but from Sunday to Saturday, the company sold 27.5 pounds of medical marijuana in 2,616 transactions, according to state figures. So, totals were 52 pounds sold in 4,787 transactions.

Marijuana prices at both stores are $15 per gram. State data said individual receipts averaged about $79. In that first week, medical cannabis sales in Arkansas were $353,802. The figure does not include Hot Spring's 9.5-percent sales tax and a 4-percent medical cannabis tax. With those numbers included, medical cannabis in Arkansas added about $47,763 to state and local tax coffers in one week. 

Consider these figures as only the very beginning of a burgeoning cannabis business across the state of Arkansas. Look west from the top of the Pyramid and you'll be able to watch that business boom right across the river from Memphis.

On the western Arkansas border, a cannabis boom is also happening in Oklahoma. Voters there approved medical cannabis last summer. Two months later — greased lightning for a state bureaucracy — the Sooner State's medical cannabis program was up and running. 

According to a story in  CannabisNow, an online news magazine, "Medical marijuana is literally too popular for Oklahoma to handle." The story describes a glut of patients — way more than state officials expected — and first-month sales receipts of more than $1 million.    

If your driver's license was issued in Tennessee, you're out of luck if you want to legally join the party, er, get a prescription. You can't go to Hot Springs or Fort Smith and buy any of that Banana Kush or Pineapple Trainwreck (or Grandaddy Purple, Buddha Kush, or Alaskan Thunder Fuck, for that matter).

State lawmakers in Tennessee just can't quite pull the trigger on a medical cannabis program. Probably because, y'know, Jesus. But they came close this year — close enough to give a pretty detailed look at what Tennessee residents could possibly expect ... someday. 

We'll get to that later. For now, let's look briefly back at just how those Arkansas patients got to stand in that line and buy cannabis in broad daylight with no fear of the cops.

A Long Shot

Initially, few thought medical marijuana legislation had a shot in hell in Arkansas. For one thing, the Natural State is very religious: 77 percent of Arkansans believe in God, and 79 percent of those are Christians, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.   

So, it was no surprise that social-conservative groups took a strong negative stand when medical cannabis was first on the ballot in Arkansas in 2012. The Family Council, a conservative think tank based in Little Rock, launched a multi-pronged attack against the measure, calling it a "backdoor effort to legalize marijuana across the state of Arkansas."

click to enlarge cover_mariujuana_map.jpg

Groups fought the 2012 measure all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which ruled in September (just before the November vote) that the marijuana measure could be placed on the ballot. The 2012 measure failed at the ballot box, but only by a slim 49 percent/51 percent margin, which gave hope to cannabis proponents.

The cannabis question simmered in the state for four years. Then, in 2016, a flurry of lawsuits, two competing ballot initiatives, think pieces, op-eds, court rulings, political wrangling, and a lot of general hand-wringing produced an initiative that went on Arkansas' November ballot, the same one in which state voters mostly pulled the lever for Donald Trump for president.   

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who led the federal Drug Enforcement Agency under President George W. Bush, opposed any cannabis-legalizing legislation in his state. He said it was "not best for patients" and that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration — not Arkansas voters — should decide. 

"We don't vote on cancer cures, and we should not set a new pattern of determining what is good medicine at the ballot box," Hutchinson said at the time. 

Still, there was plenty of support for medical cannabis. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Association (AMMA) was established to organize legislative efforts. Patient groups, such as Arkansans for Passionate Care, provided patient stories to extoll the virtues of cannabis in pain management and as an effective alternative to opioids. 

In the end, voters approved the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016 by another narrow margin: 53 percent for; 47 percent opposed. The margin was wider in Crittenden County, right across the river in West Memphis, where 61 percent of voters approved the measure.  

Hutchinson, the former drug czar, said in January that "I never dreamed I would be governor with the responsibility" of implementing a medical cannabis program. But the voters approved it, he said, and "I am committed to making it work."

But Arkansas policy makers slow-rolled the entire process. Unlike Oklahoma's lickety-split two-month timetable, Arkansas lawmakers met and wrung hands over medical marijuana for two and a half years. Hutchison said they "took the time to get this just right" and noted that a state judge stopped the implementation process altogether for awhile. 

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission divided the state into eight zones and determined that each zone would get four dispensaries, a total of 32. The commission hired Boston-based Public Consulting Group to score the 200 applications the state received from companies interested in opening dispensaries. Results were posted in December 2018, and licenses were issued in January 2019. 

Companies could file applications in more than one zone. If that company scored in the top four of any zone, it would get an application, but could only run a dispensary in one zone. So, applications from other, lower-scoring companies would move up in consideration when companies left certain zones. 

Such was the case in Zone 3, the section of northeastern Arkansas just across the river from Memphis. There, two companies — Valentine Holdings and Grassroots OPCO — left consideration in Zone 3 to pursue applications elsewhere, according to the Arkansas Times. The four companies who got dispensary rights in Zone 3 are THC Rx Inc. (West Memphis), Delta Cannabis Co. (West Memphis), Comprehensive Care Group (West Memphis), and NEA Full Spectrum (Rector).

Swimming in Marijuana

That's right. West Memphis (population 24,860) could soon have three cannabis dispensaries. That's no small feat when you consider that Little Rock, the state's most populous city (population 198,606) is only approved for two dispensaries. 

But before West Memphians get their hands on AK-47, Bubba Kush, or White Widow for back pain, the dispensaries must pass an inspection by the marijuana commission. And before that, they need to get built. 

I wanted to see some of these dispensaries for myself, at least where they soon may exist. I figured I'd come across buildings alive with workers installing shelves, hanging lights, or cleaning up a parking lot.

I followed the commission-given address (3700 Interstate 40 Frontage Road East) for THC Rx and found nothing. Siri led me to Southern Tire Mart, next to an empty field. The Delta Cannabis Co. address took me to another empty field. 

Over on OK Street (yes, it's just OK), the address for Comprehensive Care Group was a humble, one-story building set among car repair shops. Nothing about it said "medical" or "marijuana," to me. But, then again, maybe it doesn't have to. Doctor's Orders in Hot Springs is in a similar building, decorated only with a white sign with the name of the dispensary and a phone number. Arkansans obviously had no trouble finding it, since they were lined up out the door and down the sidewalk. 

But those West Memphis applications were hard-won and didn't come cheap, so it's unlikely the investors will let them languish (especially after having to post a $100,000 surety bond). It seems likely that West Memphis will, indeed, become a cannabis hot spot. 

West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon and officials with the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on this story.

Bring It Home

Somewhere beyond the floodplain, some Arkansan is legally smoking cannabis right now without a single care in the world of getting busted. That still seems like a fantasy in Tennessee, where a first-offense simple possession could net you a year in prison.

The Volunteer State still don't allow no jazz-cabbage, reefer joints, or wacky weed, even if you bought it legally elsewhere for, say, your glaucoma.

There has been support to soften state cannabis laws, and the push has come mostly from Memphis. State Senator Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) proposed a bill this year that would decriminalize possession of less than one ounce of cannabis. Another from Kyle would allow those holding medical cannabis cards from other states to bring their medicine with them while in the state. Neither measure passed.  

  • Jani Moore Photography courtesy of Ounce of Hope

Both bills did find support this year from a divided Memphis City Council, which voted 5-4 to approve a resolution backing the bills. In 2016, the council tried to use local laws to soften cannabis laws. A proposed rule would have reduced the penalty for simple possession to a $50 fine or community service. It narrowly passed here but was blocked by state lawmakers in Nashville.    

But Tennessee got this close to cranking up its own medical cannabis program this year. Of course, the issue has been this close to passing for years now. But this year was different, at least a bit. This year's efforts produced a 68-page document that provided a detailed roadmap of what Tennessee's medical cannabis program could look like. 

If the bill had been approved, a new medical cannabis commission would have been organized by April 2020. That commission would have issued up to 75 licenses for dispensaries in 2020 and up to 75 more in 2021. Those licenses would've cost between $5,000 and $15,000. Cities and counties could still opt out of the program. 

Qualified patients (those who are at least 21 with no felonies) could have applied for a patient card with a doctor's note and $35. Patients could have purchased legal cannabis to help them with debilitating medical conditions like HIV, AIDS, ALS, Crohn's disease, and more to less severe conditions like chronic pain, severe nausea, and seizures. Cannabis would also have been available to patients with neurological, mental, and emotional behavioral disorders.

But Tennessee patients would only be able to buy cannabis products as oils or extracts, including nasal sprays, capsules, pills, suppositories, transdermal patches, ointments, lotions, lozenges, tinctures, and liquids. 

There would not have been any government programs to help patients pay for cannabis, and employers could still prohibit cannabis use on the job and could screen (and not hire) possible employees for cannabis use. And, according to the Tennessee Agricultural Medicine Act, private establishments could control cannabis use on their grounds and facilities, and no cannabis would be allowed at correctional institutions.

The act was packed with details, down to how much each of the nine cannabis commissioners would be paid each year ($45,000). It would not be surprising if some version of it popped up again next session.

CBD in the Meantime

So, no dispensaries in Tennessee — at least, not yet. But cannabis culture is on the move in Memphis.

Back in 2016, state lawmakers approved the use of CBD in Tennessee. It's cannabis (derived from hemp) but not marijuana. It's used for many common ailments, such as for insomnia or pain. CBD isn't psychoactive, like weed, so, it won't get in your head or give you a deeper appreciation for Pink Floyd's The Wall

Gary Geiser has sold cannabis gear at Whatever, his Memphis smoke shops, for so long that he can remember when the legislature made him stop using the word "bong" to describe water pipes. CBD sales have boomed in his stores over the last year and a half, mostly on word of mouth, as consumers learn more about it and become curious. 

"We see just about every demographic and age group — from 20-year-olds to folks in their 70s," Geiser says. "They claim it works for just about everything. If something's wrong, put some CBD on it."

The Broom Closet on South Main is primarily a magick and metaphysical shop — think candles, herbs, and altar tools. But below the spooky posters of witches and devils, you'll find colorful bags of fruit gummies, honey straws, and lollipops. But they're not for kids. They're CBD products. 

"Our clientele is very much into conscious, holistic living, so it fits with what we do," says Stephen Guenther, who owns The Broom Closet with his wife, Emily. "Everyone is getting into [CBD products], though, from major department store chains to makeup companies. You can put CBD on topically, and I saw the other day where they now have CBD lube."

If you've visited any cannabis-legal states, you've surely seen upscale dispensaries that look like they were decorated by Gwyneth Paltrow. That's kind of what the proprietors of Ounce of Hope, a new CBD shop, were going for when they opened the shop next to the I Love Juice Bar on Cooper last month. Store owner Collin Bercier describes the space as an "upscale apothecary."

Bercier says sales have outperformed projections, and if there are people living with chronic pain, cancer, MS, PTSD, and more, there is a market for medical cannabis. 

"Ounce of Hope doesn't currently sell medical cannabis, but the impressive sales of our CBD products indicate a large appetite for alternative, natural solutions," Bercier says. "Plus, the medical cannabis legislation that just passed in Arkansas demonstrates what's possible in the South. Tennesseans are becoming even more vocal and expressing the need for similar legislation."

For the time being, however, Tennesseans will just have to wait and hope — and watch the smoke rise just across the Mississippi.

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