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Medical Marijuana Commission Sure To Get Earful On Licensure Lottery At First Public Hearing

Bobby Ampezzan
Arkansas Public Media

Last month, Medical Marijuana Commissioner Carlos Roman, an anesthesiologist, joked that the appropriate venue for the commission's first public hearing Friday would be Verizon Arena, the 18,000-seat venue for touring Top 40 musical acts, circuses and monster truck rallies.

Instead, the commission got the UA Little Rock's Bowen School of Law — larger than the modest fifth-floor conference room inside 1515 W. 7th St. where the meetings have been, still smaller than the anticipated crowd.

The commission has received dozens of email comments already, a large number asking the body to rethink its plan for a lottery to pick 32 Arkansans to open retail storefronts for medical marijuana.

So far, Medical Marijuana Commission meetings are attended not by ailing patients waiting on this new-old therapy but enterprising folks interested in the buildout, the capitalism, like Gene Remley.

"I’ve been coming to all the meetings and just have an interest in cultivation center and dispensary. I've worked for the last 20 years in various campaigns to get this going, so, it’s on my bucket list."

Remley is a retired finance guy. Another gentleman at or nearing retirement age is Ojima Robinson.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Ojima Robinson of Little Rock at a Medical Marijuana Commission meeting in February.

"The main thing I want to do, I want to get into it really to serve the people, to give the people something that would be beneficial."

Robinson suffers from neuropathy, he says, one of the 18 qualifying conditions to get a medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor.

"I mean, there’s people really suffering out here that I think this would be a good product."

Most business startups, the state doesn’t scrutinize. If they succeed, great, and if not, eh, it’s not so bad. You want to open an accounting firm or a lawncutting business? The Department of Finance and Administration isn’t going to ask for your resume. But with medical marijuana they are, and those who weather the process will be rewarded, at least, if it goes anything like Colorado, says Matt Karnes of GreenWave Advisors in Denver.

"Yes, absolutely, you know, you had the pioneers and the visionaries that had, you know, probably the experience in the illegal market and transferred those skills to the legal market."

Now, he says, in the second wave, it's the capitalists coming in to invest.

Remley and Robinson admit they don’t have backgrounds in commercial agriculture or retailing in a regulated industry, but they have some relevant experience.

"I mean, I can grow. I know that," Robinson says. "I have grown. I used to live in California. It was on a small scale."

The expectations for licensees in the draft regulations set a pretty high bar. Robinson didn’t want to reveal his plans, but Gene Remley agreed to an interview at his home in Roland.   

Remley would like to get a cultivation license, a dispensary license, or both. He's met with consultants in Colorado to discuss drafting a business plan and timeline. He's partnered with a real estate developer in Fayetteville who will front him as much startup capital as it will take. Confronted with the qualifications stipulated in the draft rules and regulations concerning preferred licensees — that they have experience retailing in a regulated industry and secure inventory tracking for dispensaries, horticulture, agriculture, and commercial manufacturing for cultivating, and business startup experience for either — Remley says, "I don't but I know someone who has."

(Among other resources, his son-in-law owns the homebrewing supplier The Water Buffalo in Little Rock.)

Gene Remley at home

"Gene, have you ever opened a business, started a business?" I asked.

"Well, no, not really, no, no."

"You ever farmed?"

"No, no, no."

And then, finally, anyone associated with the industry must have a “reputable and responsible character.” Remley is a past president of the local Lions club and has never been convicted of a felony.

For dispensaries, licensees have to pay $2,500 ($25,000 for dispensaries that elect to grow on premises for commercial sale.) For growers, it's a $100,000 licensing fee, and another $1 million surety bond refunded after the business is up and running successfully. (Just to apply for a cultivation license is $7,500.)

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Mike Johnson of Russellville (right) has attended Medical Marijuana Commission meetings as a representative of Alarms USA Inc., a security installation and sales company interested in cultivation and dispensary facility contracts.

At 70 years old, if he’s not picked it’ll be fine. It’s just, he’s put in thousands of hours on this, as president of the state Drug Policy Education Group, collecting petition signatures. It was collecting signatures at a street fair that he came across a young mom eager to sign, with her little girl in tow.  

"Might have been the Cornbread Festival [in Little Rock]. And, this lady walked around the corner and she's got this little girl by the hand, maybe six or seven, mom's probably early 30s. I go up and I just say, 'Hi, my name is Gene Remley, I'm working with Arkansans For Compassionate Care, and I’m trying to get medical cannabis on the ballot' and she grabbed the petitition out of my hand, said, 'Yes I’ll sign it. Yes I’ll sign it.' As she's signing it she's talking. 'My daughter's been in chemotherapy for 4 months,' and I looked down at the little girl, and her mom finished signing it, she took the little girl's hat off, and her hair was falling out.

"And what was the kicker on the whole thing, was, the mom said, 'If I gave her cannabis to help her, child protective services would take her away from me.' It just kills me thinking about, she just wanted to help her daughter. It's horrible, horrible."

"I just committed at that time that I'll never stop until we get this done."

Phone calls and e-mails to all five Medical Marijuana Commissioners went unanswered last week.

The Commission’s first public meeting is Friday from 2 to 6 pm. at the UA Little Rock Bowen School of Law in Little Rock.

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