Advocates for expanding access to medical marijuana in Arkansas gathered at the Capitol to speak to legislators today, hours before the state Medical Marijuana Commission was to award the first licenses to grow cannabis for medicinal use.
The second annual “Patients Day” at the legislature was led by Melissa Fults, a longtime proponent of medical cannabis in Arkansas and a Democratic state Senate candidate for District 33 (now held by Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson).
In the crowd were people like Stephen Griego, an Army veteran who said his PTSD is best treated by cannabis, and Tiffany Krisell, whose 49-year-old mother has Lupus, among other conditions, and doesn’t want to use opioids.
In front of a crowd of people wearing red “Patient Not Criminal” T-shirts, Fults laid out the state of medical marijuana affairs: Yes, medical marijuana is now law — a seeming pipe dream not too long ago — but the amendment voters passed doesn’t go far enough.
“You know, back in 2011 we had people saying, ‘Oh, don’t waste your time. This will never happen in Arkansas.’ Well, guess what? We proved them wrong! And we’re going to continue to prove them wrong,” she said. “The [law] that we ended up with was not what we wanted. We all admit that. But, can we make it better? Yes!”
Fults wants more of everything: more conditions that qualify patients for a medical marijuana card (“a minimum of 40,” she said; there are now 18), more dispensaries (the state is expected to grant 32 licenses in May) and more accountability over those who will be rewarded lucrative contracts to grow and sell cannabis.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “And the way to do that is to work with our legislators.”
Fults then led the group from the Capitol steps around the back of the building and down the hill to the Big Mac legislative building. At first, the medical marijuana group began filing into the building to talk to legislators, but the Joint Budget Committee was still in session and there were few legislators outside the meeting room. (Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam [R-Judsonia] was leaned back in a chair chatting in the foyer. He told the Times that there wasn’t much that could be done about expanding conditions now. “They’re about a year too early.”)
Fults then directed the group back outside to fan out around the entry, creating a tunnel-gauntlet of sorts through which legislators would have to walk as they exited the building.
When Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) — who has legislatively shepherded the medical marijuana law — emerged, applause rippled through the crowd. He gave a pseudo-speech: promising to “put the drug cartels out of business” and that they’d been working hard to get everything ready.
Rep. Mark McElroy (D-Tillar) spent the most time among the group, chatting with person after person about medical marijuana. He said he understood objections to the implementation of the law, but now that medical marijuana was part of the state Constitution it was time to put it into effect.
He also had a personal connection. His sister died from cancer about 30 years ago. Near the end, her doctor asked McElroy if he could get his loved one some cannabis. He didn’t because it was illegal. “I just felt helpless,” he said. “But the thing of it is: Now it’s the law in Arkansas and we’re supposed to uphold the Constitution.”
The Medical Marijuana Commission meets at 3:30 p.m. today to announce who will be awarded the cultivation licenses.