Week in Review: Dueling ballot measures, MT dispensaries close, New York aims for reform

By John Schroyer

Arkansas makes what could be an offbeat piece of medical marijuana history, Montana’s MMJ industry comes to at least a temporary end, and New York officials look to bolster the state’s medical cannabis industry.

Here’s a closer look at some notable developments in the marijuana industry over the past week.

Two for the price of one?

Arkansas will be an interesting state to watch on Election Day.

It’s apparently the first state to have a pair of competing medical marijuana legalization measures on the ballot vying for the same votes. Add to the mix the fact that a sizeable conservative bloc of residents will no doubt try to defeat any pro-cannabis initiative.

The general political consensus is that the two will most likely fail, given that like-minded initiatives tend to split support. But that may not come to pass in November, Joseph Giammo, a University of Arkansas politics professor, said.

“I don’t think most people going in and voting are going to look at it as either-or. It’s not like you have to vote for only one,” Giammo said.

Given the confusion surrounding medical cannabis and the fact that most people won’t have learned a lot about it beforehand, Giammo reckons that if people favor MMJ, “they’ll vote for both, and if they oppose it they’ll vote against both.”

That may be especially easy, given that the two initiatives – the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment and the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act – have been designated Issues 6 and 7, respectively. So they’ll be right next to each other on the ballot.

In addition, MMJ has garnered solid support in Arkansas polling, which lends further credence to the possibility that many voters will support both measures.

“It was much closer to passing (in 2012) than I expected. So there’s definitely a realistic chance that one or both wind up passing. It’s hard to say,” Giammo said, referring to a previous MMJ initiative that failed by just three percentage points.

If both pass, then Issue 6, which amends the state constitution, would take precedence over Issue 7, which only changes state law, Giammo said. That would mean: a for-profit MMJ system, no home grows, between 20 and 40 dispensaries, from four to eight cultivators, and a shorter list of qualifying conditions.

Closing time

The medical cannabis industry in Montana has come to an end. At least for now.

A state Supreme Court ruling in February, which upheld a restrictive MMJ law passed by the legislature five years ago, finally took effect Wednesday. The result: Probably every dispensary across the state closed.

But longtime cannabis activist Chris Lindsey, who lives in Missoula and is also a legislative analyst for Marijuana Policy Project, predicted the closings will prove short-lived.

“Montana has gone through a similar experience. When the law changed in 2011, it required every single caregiver to stop serving patients,” Lindsey said. “So we’ve rebooted this system before, and it survived.”

At the time, Lindsey said, the number of registered patients plummeted to just a few thousand from around 25,000. As of July, there were 13,170 registered patients.

Looking ahead, Lindsey fully expects Initiative 182, which would fully legalize dispensaries and create a regulatory framework for the MMJ industry, will pass easily in November. And, he said, the law should go into effect as soon as the election results are certified, which could be the day after votes are cast.

That in turn would mean dispensaries could reopen as soon as Nov. 9.

“The dispensaries will probably find their patients. There’s a tremendous amount of loyalty there, especially in a system like ours,” Lindsey said. “You know your patients if you’re a provider in Montana, and … those relationships don’t go away.”

As for reported problems of a mistake in the I-182 wording that could delay dispensary reopenings until June, Lindsey expects that will be a wrinkle worked out sooner rather than later, and that Montana will again have a functioning MMJ industry before long.

Time will tell whether all that comes to pass.

Only in New York!

New York may be famous for a lot of things. But within the cannabis industry, it’s not considered a poster child for savvy MMJ regulation.

That was the takeaway from New York City attorney Noah Potter, a lawyer who works in conjunction with Colorado-based cannabis law firm Hoban & Feola.

Potter was unimpressed by this week’s news that New York’s Department of Health will reform the state’s medical cannabis system by allowing nurse practitioners to certify patients for MMJ and doubling the number of licensed MMJ producers.

The department plans to implement those and other business-friendly steps that it recommended earlier in a report.

“Every last bit of it is strange,” Potter said. “Everything they’re recommending was foreseeable from the outset. It’s an implicit admission that the program was deficient from the beginning.”

He agrees the changes will probably help make the New York MMJ program more viable in the long term by expanding the patient pool. But Potter the expects the state will drag its feet on implementing the reforms, and that it’ll be months before many of them will be implemented.

For example, he noted, a department press release promised to double the number of licensed MMJ producers, to 10 from five, but over the next two years. That’s despite the fact that the department is likely to revisit the list of 38 applicants from last year that didn’t receive a business license, instead of restarting the application process.

Other recommendations will be done over months, if they’re ever fully tackled, Potter said.

“I expect that the DOH will move, but it’ll be overly restrictive,” Potter said.

John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]

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