LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas’ Republican governor won’t stand in the way of the first medical marijuana program in the Bible Belt, he said Wednesday, asking lawmakers to set aside $3 million to prepare for its launch.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the former federal Drug Enforcement Administration director who had been an outspoken opponent of the state’s medical pot effort, said he’s asked officials to begin working on the rules necessary for the program, which voters approved Tuesday.
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“The people voted this in and I intend to implement it according to the will of the people of Arkansas,” Hutchinson said at a news conference. “But the people of Arkansas expect me to do it right, to do it in a way that protects our children and to do it in a way that minimizes the problems we’ve been very concerned about. That’s what the regulations are about.”
The governor and legislative leaders will discuss appointments to a five-member commission that will issue licenses to dispensaries, where approved patients will be able to buy the drug. The commission must be named within the next month and faces a June 2017 deadline to begin accepting applications for the dispensaries.
The constitutional amendment allows patients diagnosed with qualifying medical conditions to apply for a state-issued registration card to purchase the drug at dispensaries. Twelve conditions will qualify, including cancer, Crohn’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder, along with chronic or debilitating diseases that produce certain symptoms such as seizures or severe nausea. The amendment will allow the Department of Health to add other qualifying medical conditions.
Opponents have said they’ll now focus on legislation that would limit the program, including restrictions on its advertising and zoning options for cities and counties. The Legislature can make some changes by a two-thirds vote to the amendment, but not anything that deals with the drug’s legalization or the number of dispensaries allowed, which is between 20 and 40.
“I would imagine we’d have to have dozens of new laws passed,” said Jerry Cox, head of the socially conservative Arkansas Family Council, which opposed the amendment.
The head of the group behind the legalization plan said he was encouraged by Hutchinson’s comments and believes $3 million was more than enough for the startup costs.
But he warned lawmakers to avoid taking steps to severely limit the drug’s availability.
“We would resist any attempts to gut it,” said David Couch, head of Arkansans United for Medical Marijuana.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter @ademillo