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Medical Marijuana May Light Eureka Springs' Next Tourism Draw

J. Froelich
Arkansas Public Media

Eureka Springs, a nineteenth century Ozark Mountain health spa, could soon become a 21st century mecca for medical marijuana.

constitutional amendment allowing the use of cannabis for certain medicinal purposes was approved by Arkansas voters last November. And certain residents of Eureka Springs hope to brand their village as a medicinal marijuana destination.

Mid-19th century Ozark pioneers first explored the deep forested hollows of northeastern "Lovely County" hearing rumors of magical cold-water springs which contained healing qualities. Crowds of health seekers followed, traveling by horseback and wagon, hoping the waters would cure their fevers, pains, and even cancers. 

Those who stayed named the place Eureka Springs. By 1890, as many as 5,000 residents had carved out a Victorian spa resort. Today, 140 years later, as many as 1.5 million tourists in recent seasons,  flock to Eureka to enjoy the historic springs, architecture and healing atmosphere. But by this time next year? Tourists may also travel to Eureka Springs to safely purchase and consume medical marijuana, says Eureka Springs Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry.

Credit J. Froelich
Eureka Springs Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry.

"Yes," he says, "this could be another element of the healing properties of our community."

Butch Berry, a fourth-generation Carroll County resident, says his Mississippi ancestors came to Eureka for the spring-water cure, including his great grandmother who had suffered four miscarriages. He is living proof that she prevailed in finally giving birth.

“My great-great-grandfather came here after the Civil War, when the town was founded in 1879,” he says.

Berry envisions many more coming to Eureka for a medical marijuana cure.

"Marijuana has been around for decades and people recognize the value. Many of us have relatives who have medical issues that marijuana might help, as opposed to other drugs. There was a time when my grandmother was having health issues, and she wondered if smoking marijuana would help her feel better.”

Credit J. Froelich
Historic promotional poster for Eureka Springs.

Using marijuana medicinally, as well as to get high, remains controversial. The FDA has approved an array of non-psychotropic cannabis medications to help stimulate appetite in patients with AIDS and for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. And although the use of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes remains federally illegal. more than half of all U.S. states have legalized it.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission and Alcoholic Beverage Control Division of the Department of Finance and Administration will regulate and oversee Arkansas’s 32 dispensaries and five marijuana cultivation facilities, statewide. The Arkansas legislature is also weighing in on a dozen bills including who can legally operate a dispensary or cultivate the plant, how the drug is consumed, whether physicians can opt-out of prescribing the drug, how tax revenue may be spent, how the product is advertised and packaged, and if cities and counties can reject selling or dispensing it. Once rules are established, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission will begin to vet applicants who will have to pay hefty licensing fees, bonds, and prove cash assets. Implementation of the law, barring legislative obstacles, is scheduled May 8th.         

Sandy Martin, chair of Eureka Springs' Mayor's Task Force on Economic Development, says medical marijuana could elevate Eureka's local economy.

Credit J. Froelich
Long-time Carroll County resident, Sandy Martin supports a local medical marijuana industry.

“The tourism industry is wonderful but it's low-paying and seasonal," she says.

Meaning, Eureka's low-wage waitresses, motel and hotel maids, shop clerks and cooks tend to come and go.

“Medical marijuana could rebrand Eureka as a medical arts center," she says, "which would be a great shot in the arm for our economy.”

The Arkansas Department of Health will issue medical marijuana patient registry identification cards for individuals deemed by their physician to have any of 18 qualifying conditions, ranging from Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, Hepatitis C, and nausea.

A medical marijuana industry in Eureka Springs, Sandy Martin says, would also compliment the dozens of massage therapists, acupuncturists, and herbalists that currently practice in the village.

“Eureka Springs is a town of under 2,100 people, but we have the infrastructure to accommodate a million-and-a-half [visitors] a year. [We have] a large police force, first responders, and hospitals.”

Martin, a public relations specialist, worked early on with Little Rock lawyer, David Couch, who sponsored the medical marijuana constitutional amendment. She invited Couch to Eureka Springs in late December to talk about how the new law might work. More than a hundred locals turned out. Couch, she says, plans to return once all the rules are in place.        

Arkansas Public Media contacted a half dozen residents interested in opening a grow operation or dispensary. All declined to talk on record, but Mayor Berry says he personally knows four groups of investors who plan to apply for a permit. And Sandy Martin says with medical marijuana city tax collections, Eureka could also invest in medical marijuana research.

“To start a science center, medical marijuana cultivation research lab, incubator--we could do that," she says. 

Because while marijuana's medicinal benefits remains controversial, the economics of therapeutic resort communities is well-reported, as Eureka Springs' own history illustrates.

Credit J. Froelich
Basin Springs Park, where future Arkansas medical marijuana patients could possibly rest and rejuvenate.

Audio Bonus: 

The sound signatures of ten Eureka cold water springs, circa spring 2010.

In the early spring of 2010, Jacqueline Froelich did a walkabout, recording the major springs of Eureka Springs creating this "biophany"--a compilation of cold water springs sound signatures.  In order of appearance: Harding Spring, Cardinal Spring, Grotto Spring, Oil Spring, Saucer Spring, Sweet Spring, Basin Spring (upper cave passage flow), Magnetic Spring upper pool outfall, Mystic Spring and Johnson Spring.

Credit Christopher Fischer
Recording at Mystic Springs, Eureka Springs, April 2010.

This report is a production of Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.

Jacqueline Froelich is an award-winning senior news reporter for KUAF-91.3 FM in Fayetteville where she is a long-time station-based correspondent for NPR in Washington D.C. She covers energy, business, education, politics, the environment, and culture. Her work is broadcast locally on KUAF’s daily news magazine, “Ozarks At Large,” and statewide on Arkansas’s three public radio affiliates.