LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The House voted Tuesday to delay the launch of the state’s voter-approved Arkansas medical marijuana program and ease a restriction on doctors who certify a patient is eligible to use the drug.
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The bills are among the first of several that lawmakers are expected to take up in the coming weeks as they implement the constitutional amendment that legalizes pot for Arkansas residents with certain medical conditions.
The delay proposal, approved on a 91-0 vote, would give state agencies until early May rather than March to finalize the rules. It will also move the state’s deadline to begin accepting applications for dispensaries and cultivation facilities to July 1, rather than June 1.
“They can pass a rule overnight, but you won’t get public input, you won’t get public participation, mistakes will be made,” Republican Rep. Douglas House said before the vote.
The lawyer who spearheaded the medical pot campaign said he didn’t view the delay as an effort to stall the program’s launch.
“They obviously do need an extra 60 days to get it done, so I don’t have a problem with that,” David Couch said.
Arkansas is among several states where voters legalized or expanded medical marijuana last year, and some of those states’ officials have been scrambling to prepare rules. North Dakota lawmakers are considering a proposal to delay implementing its medical marijuana law until July to address issues such as allowable forms of pot.
The Arkansas Legislature can change parts of the amendment with a two-thirds vote, as long as it doesn’t affect provisions legalizing medical marijuana or setting the number of dispensaries allowed.
Another measure approved by the House by a 70-23 vote would remove the requirement for doctors who certify patients to also state the benefits of the drug outweigh its risks. House said some doctors had expressed concerns about making such a determination.
Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger, who opposed the measure, said he was concerned about the Legislature changing something he believed voters approved as a safeguard “because a doctor can’t issue a prescription.”
Both measures now head to the state Senate. It’s not clear when that chamber’s Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee will take up the bills.
House said he’s working on other bills, including one that would direct the independent commission regulating the dispensaries to restrict the sale of candy-style products and another that would restrict dispensary advertising.
“We don’t want a dancing bear and flying rabbits and stuff on the advertising that would cause kids to want to frequent these establishments,” he said.
Most of the Arkansas Legislature and the state’s top elected officials, including Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, opposed and campaigned against the medical pot measure. Hutchinson backs the bill giving agencies additional time but said any restrictions on the drug and the launch of the program, including limits on types of marijuana products sold, should be addressed first by the commission created to oversee the program.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter @ademillo