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Arkansas Growing: The Journey from Legalization to Cultivation

Arkansas Growing: The Journey from Legalization to Cultivation
Arkansas Growing: The Journey from Legalization to Cultivation
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A little more than two years ago, Arkansas voters approved an amendment to the state constitution legalizing the use of medical marijuana.

It was a bold step for an otherwise traditional state. And while it's taken time to get the program up and running, now it's here. The first medical marijuana products are expected to be in the hands of patients in April.

With the program’s arrival, employers in Arkansas face legal questions about worker use. Patients and physicians will navigate the the side effects of the drug. Schools will decide whether it’s allowed on campus. And the drug’s economic impact might reshape the future of an impoverished city.

A glimpse at what might be ahead can be found in a neighboring state.

The Sooner way

In Oklahoma, medical marijuana was legalized in June. Fifty-seven percent of voters approved the measure, formally known as Question 788. And since then, the state has been overwhelmed with business and patient applications.

In just a few months, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority had collected $8 million in fees from patient cards, cultivation, processing and dispensary license -- enough to pay for startup costs and to sustain the program through its first year.

"One of the major spirits of 788 was very ‘maw and paw,’ everyday patients,” said Shawn Jenkins, who co-owns a dispensary and cultivation facility with his wife Lauren. “And if there were going to be businesses, the law needs to be written in such a way that everyday Oklahomans had a shot to make it. That you didn't discount anyone or play this game of discrimination based on socioeconomic status."

Shawn and Lauren Jenkins opened one of the first dispensaries in the state. Their children, Carver, 6, and Lira, 2, led them into the business. Carver has a disorder that causes seizures. His sister suffers from brain abnormalities.

Lauren said Carver’s condition has been mitigated with traditional pharmaceuticals. But Lira’s has been “completely controlled” with medication derived from marijuana.

“We didn't look into it at first, obviously, with Carver,” Lauren said. “We just kind of felt like we were just pushed into the modern Western medicine.”

Lira takes hemp extract oil and a highly concentrated form of cannabidiol oil. Her dosage of CBD, as it’s commonly known, is about 120 milligrams per day, roughly 12 times the amount commonly used for everyday wellness, Lauren said.

"Thankfully, from our knowledge going into it from Carver, we were able to start her on CBD before other pharmaceuticals,” Lauren said. “And it works for her."

Lira takes a CBD oil named Charlotte’s Web, but her parents have started making their own.

Five months after Oklahoma voters approved medical marijuana, a third dispensary opened in Tulsa. It now offers nine different strains of marijuana and edibles such as gummies and cookies. It also offers vape products.

The business, Oklahoma Home Grown OHG, has a wide range of customers, from cancer patients seeking to boost their appetite to people who need help sleeping.

"We ask what you're interested in, what you're looking for,” owner Ryan Reece said. “Some people are looking for -- they've got anxiety and they don't want to be stressed. Some people are looking for something that has some CBD in it, which helps with pain."

The state levies a 7 percent sales tax on all medical marijuana products.

Reece said he’s always a been a supporter of medical marijuana, which he views as safer than other substances that have been legal far longer.

“I grew up in families where we had people who were alcoholics it's a pretty easy decision that marijuana is a lot healthier, a lot less addicting,” he said. “In my opinion it's not addicting at all and alcohol -- alcohol ruins lives."

Reece’s business is among thousands that have been licensed for cultivating, processing or dispensing medical marijuana in Oklahoma. It’s a free and crowded market and some businesses might not survive the first year, according to Adrienne Rollins, director of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. But the number of patients is increasing. Unlike Arkansas, there are no qualifying conditions for medical marijuana treatment. That lack of restrictions “puts the responsibility where it should be, which is between a physician and their patient,” said Bud Scott, the executive director of a trade association that represents Oklahoma medical marijuana businesses.

Other aspects of the medical marijuana program are more closely monitored. Businesses are required send the state monthly reports on their activity. Growers have to report how many plants they have. Processors have to report what they’ve purchased. Dispensaries have to report sales and inventory.

Still, Oklahoma’s medical marijuana market has limited regulations. It appears very different from the one taking shape in Arkansas, which caps the number of growers and dispensaries and operates under the direction of a five-person commission.

Legislative meddling and claims of impropriety have surrounded the program, which has taken more than two years to implement.

"When you implement a merit-based program like that, there's all sorts of room for corruption and you're limiting an industry in its actual growth,” Scott said. “So really we weren't surprised what we've seen in Arkansas."

New life in a dying town

Rice, soybeans and cotton are just a few of the cash crops that drive Arkansas’ economy, and most are produced in the eastern third of the state.

Now there’s a new crop, marijuana, being grown openly and legally for the first time. And for a tiny community about 78 miles east of Little Rock, it could bring big changes.

Until now, the city of Cotton Plant was best known as the birthplace of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who popularized gospel music in the 1930s and 40s and is often called the godmother of rock-and-roll. Each year, the city hosts a music festival in her honor that draws fans from around the world.

But when the music stops, life in the city moves at a different tempo. Willard Ryland, president of the Cotton Plant Area Chamber of Commerce and the city’s former mayor, described Cotton Plant as “a quiet, sleepy town” that has had its ups and downs.

But over the past few decades, Ryland said, it’s been mostly downs. Along Main Street are empty storefronts and buildings in disrepair. There is no bank and no grocery store. People are scarce.

“People have to travel away from here just to get a gallon of gas,” Ryland said. “You can't even buy gas in this town."

It wasn’t always like this. Cotton Plant was once a booming city powered by cotton gins and a plywood mill. Rylan, who grew up in the city, traces its decline to the 1970s, when schools integrated and white flight ravaged the community. Businesses closed. The population, which peaked at 2,000, began falling.

Today, just 649 people live in Cotton Plant. The town’s only high school closed in 2004. The elementary school was later consolidated. Students are now bussed to a school district nearly 30 miles away.

Ryland, who became mayor in 2014, refused to let his city die. He began aggressively recruiting businesses to come to Cotton Plant. But from Dollar General stores to banks, the answer was always no.

And then in 2017, the phone rang. A group of businessmen had a proposal. They wanted to build a $6 million facility to grow medical marijuana in Cotton Plant.

“For a second or two,” Ryland said, describing the call, “it was dead silence. “This has gotta be a joke."

It was no joke. A company called Bold Team, LLC, had applied for one of the five available licenses to grow medical marijuana in the state. Applicants who promised to set up shop in economically depressed areas were awarded bonus points in the state’s selection process. And someone in the company happened to have family from Cotton Plant.

"It was overwhelming, literally, to the point where I almost cried,” Ryland said. “I said God has sent us what's going to help change this community. And we didn't really have to do anything but be receptive to it."

Bold Team’s director of customer relations, Robert Lercher, said the company initially planned to build on a parcel of land between Beebe and Searcy. But things changed when they spoke to Ryland.

“When we came here and met the mayor, at that time it was open arms,” Lercher said. “And we got to meet some of the people in the community and we found home here. And we're proud to be here in Cotton Plant.”

In January, the first legal marijuana plants in Arkansas were planted inside a 45,000-square-foot cultivation center in Cotton Plant. Bold Team is paying the city $1,500 per month to lease the 8.5 acre site.

It also pays the city 1 percent of its gross sales. That could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Bold Team expects there to be between 60,000 and 90,000 patients in the state in the first 18 months of the program. The company plans to harvest about 200 pounds of marijuana each week.

The cultivation center created about 25 jobs. Bold Team has pledged to hire locally.

“We don't know what's going to happen in the future,” said Mayor Clara Harston Brown, “but this is a start. This is a start for Cotton Plant. And in Cotton Plant they are enthused over it. They're enthused over it. And for one reason: the jobs."

Brown said most residents, including herself, have had to adjust to the idea of hosting a medical marijuana business.

"I'm not in love with marijuana,” she said. “I'm not. But this here is for medical purposes. It's not for you to go out there and smoke and you come back being a fool because you don't know what you're smoking. Now you have a chance to know what you're smoking. And it's supposed to help you.”

Brown plans to use revenue from the cultivation center to give city employees a raise, beautify the Main Street corridor and recruit new businesses.

"I just want these citizens to have a place to go to work,”she said. “And I want a store around here where they can go shopping. I want a service station around here for them. I want something for the children. That marijuana plant is going to benefit the whole city."

Cannabis in the classroom

Sarah Weatherford had been searching desperately for a way to help her 8-year-old daughter Jaynna control her seizures.

Jaynna has frontal lobe epilepsy, a disorder that causes the brain to send abnormal signals that result in seizures. On one occasion, Jaynna suffered a seizure so severe that she couldn’t recall her own name or call out for her mother.

"The only thing a little 8-year-old girl wants is to feel normal and to be in the classroom with her friends and go play out on the monkey bars,” Weatherford said. “She's not allowed on monkey bars because she has seizures. She's not allowed to climb up on things.”

Traditional medication helped, but didn't completely stop the seizures. And sometimes the side effects were worse than the seizures themselves. Sarah said certain medication left Jaynna unable to sleep for weeks. When she did sleep, she had night terrors.

So Sarah began exploring alternatives to prescription medication. After reading about other children who had success controlling seizures using medical cannabis, Sarah applied for a medical marijuana card for Jaynna.

Jaynna is now the youngest person in Arkansas with permission to use medical marijuana. She’s been taking a prescription medication along with a legal hemp-based oil but will switch to a cannabis-based oil when the distribution begins, possibly as early as April.

Medical cannabis looked to the be the answer to Jaynna’s problems -- until her school district started raising questions. When Sarah approached the district about adding cannabis oil to Jaynna’s school health plan, she was met with resistance.

“It's still federally illegal, so the schools can say no,” Sarah said. “It's their obligation to determine which way they want to go there.”

The school was reluctant to allow the nurse to dispense the oil. They suggested that Sarah leave work, drive to the school during the day, take Jaynna out of class and off campus, and give her the oil herself.

Instead, the Weatherfords moved to a new school district.

“I would have done it,” Sarah said. “I mean, it's my kid. If she needs it, she needs it. But, it's obviously a lot more convenient to have somebody who says, hey, if she needs it, I'll give it to her. That's not a problem.”

Jaynna now attends the Mount Vernon-Enola School District. Elementary school principal Leslie Carter said the decision to allow Jaynna to use cannabis oil on campus wasn’t a tough one.

"We really don't differentiate between this and any other medicine that a child needs to thrive," she said.

Casey has experience teaching special needs children. She’s familiar with the neurological issues that come with epilepsy, such as dyslexia and speech issues, that can make learning harder.

“We're talking about something that could help her neurological pathways to stabilize so she can learn, so she doesn't have word-finding issues,” Carter said. “We are building a literate and healthy society, so if they need that, that's what they need.”

Schools have the authority to ban medical cannabis on campus, even for students with a qualifying condition and a patient card. At schools that allow it, nurses will not endanger their license by administering the drug if it’s part of a student's health plan, according to the state Board of Nursing.

It’s up to each school district to decide.

Jaynna is making progress in her new district. She’s doing better in class and enjoying her new school. Her mother sees a bright future.

“She's going to drive one day. She's going to want a family one day,” Sarah said. “She's going to be an adult and I want to make sure that she gets to do everything that everybody else does.”

Sarah said she’d like there to be a law making it mandatory for school districts to allow student patients to receive treatment on campus. It's something she and Jaynna started lobbying lawmakers for a year ago.

"I really wish they would have a little bit more compassion towards the families,” she said. “I'm sure at some point it will be abused. So are opioids. So are pain pills. But an 8-year-old girl isn't going to abuse it, you know? We just want a little bit of security.”

Side effects

Colorado was one of the first states to legalize marijuana for medicinal use and later for recreational use.

Now 33 states have legalized the drug in one form or another, and several other states are poised to follow. But marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government. And because of that classification, scientific studies on the usage and impact of marijuana use are not federally funded and are hard to find.

But a real-time study has been going on in the U.S. for a decade now. The expanding use of marijuana in state after state is indeed producing data. Colorado is one of the states producing such data.

"We don't know much about marijuana because it is a Schedule 1 drug,” said Kayvan Khalatbar, the owner of a Denver dispensary. “So we're all learning. Local governments are learning. State governments. The federal government. And us on the ground. We're all learning as we go."

In 2012, when medical marijuana was legal in Colorado and recreational marijuana was imminent, KATV interviewed several residents concerned about the state’s direction. They worried that children would start using marijuana at an earlier age would be less likely to graduate from high school. They feared that heavy long-term use would decrease intelligence.

Those effects haven’t been seen.

Statistics released this year by the Colorado Department of Education show that the state's high school graduation rate is up 8.3 percent since 2010. Last year, the high school dropout rate was 2.2 percent -- an all-time low.

Maybe marijuana is less cool when it's legal. Several state and federal studies have found that as legal marijuana has become more accessible, use among teenagers has gone down.

Also going down is the number of marijuana-related court filings. In fact, they’ve been cut in half from 11,753 in 2012 to 5,288 in 2017. There are less pot-related citations clogging up the courts.

Something that has increased in Colorado is tax revenue from marijuana sales, which benefits schools and local governments. Retail and medical marijuana shops tallied at least $1.5 billion in sales in 2017. Colorado's cut was $247 million. That’s way up from the $67 million it collected in 2014.

Colorado's marijuana industry accounts for nearly 18,000 full-time jobs.

But the price of legal marijuana has fallen 70 percent over the past four years in Colorado. That and a burgeoning black market is threatening some businesses and cutting into revenue forecasts.

"When you hear, ‘Well, if you legalize it, it will get rid of the black market’ -- we've not seen that to be true,” said Colorado drug task force director Tom Gorman. “Not only the black market going out of state but within state, because they can undercut the amount of money you are charging for legal marijuana."

Gorman spoke to KATV in 2012 and said he didn't foresee the emergence of a black market. But he was concerned about another possible side effect of legalization -- an increase in crime. Colorado and three other states that legalized marijuana in 2014 and 2015 have seen sharp increases in murder and aggravated assaults since legalization, Alex Berenson reported in his book “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.”

Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska have seen a combined 35 percent increase in murders and a 25 percent increase in assaults between 2013 and 2017.

Legal marijuana isn’t solely to blame. But it’s not true that crime rates are falling where marijuana has been legalized.

Marijuana is often described as a safer alternative to prescription opioids, as it’s believed to be impossible to overdose on marijuana. Prescription painkiller overdoses, on the other hand, kill tens of thousands of people per year.

But Gorman said other deaths can be connected to marijuana. Primarily, fatal crashes involving a drugged driver. According to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, over 70 percent of the nearly 4,000 drivers charged with driving under the influence in 2016 also tested positive for marijuana.

In a survey of 15,000 Colorado cannabis users, 70 percent admitted to driving under the influence of marijuana at least once during the past year. Forty percent said they don't think marijuana affects their ability to drive.

In 2013, there were 55 drivers in fatal accidents who tested positive for THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. That number had grown to 139 in 2017.

Twenty percent of Colorado traffic deaths are now marijuana-related. The actual number is likely higher, as not all coroners test for the drug.

In the first four states to legalize marijuana for recreational use -- a campaign for which is in its early stages in Arkansas -- traffic accidents increased 6 percent compared to states where marijuana had not been legalized in any form. Not surprisingly, auto insurance rates in states that have legalized marijuana have also increased.

The 1936 propaganda film "Reefer Madness" depicts marijuana use as leading to hysteria, promiscuity, violence and even death. It has become a cult classic because of its exaggerated acting and over-the-top presentation of the dangers of smoking pot.

Berenson's book also sounds an alarm. And it takes its name, "Tell Your Children," directly from “Reefer Madness.” But unlike the film, the book is full of statistics from legitimate sources like the National Academy of Medicine, which has found that cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses, and that the higher the potency, the greater the risk.

"I think the most frequent thing that [emergency room] doctors are going to see is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, meaning directly related to cannabis use,” said Dr. Brad Roberts, a physician in Pueblo, Colo. “So those are people who have persistent vomiting. They are usually screaming. In Colorado they have actually nicknamed it "scromitting," as a combination of screaming and vomiting."

Another side effect of legalization is more marijuana-related hospitalizations. In 2000, there 575 in Colorado. By 2016, the number was up to 3,517.

Physicians say the main reason for so many bad trips is the potency of modern marijuana.

"The cannabis we're talking about today is much different than it was in the 80,” Roberts said. “The cannabis back in the 80s had less than 2 percent THC. Today's cannabis is most likely 20 percent THC and that is just for a normal joint. Beyond that, if you're talking oils, waxes, dabs -- those things can get up to 80 or 90 percent THC."

When KATV interviewed Dr. Ken Finn in 2012, he said the high potency of today's pot was one of his primary concerns. Seven years later, he says it still is. But he fears it’s too late to change that.

"The evidence is piling up, as well as the bodies are piling up, related to mass commercialization and expansion of marijuana in our state and other states,” Finn said. “We really -- we have a marijuana epidemic now. I think our national administration has acknowledged our opioid epidemic. They have acknowledged our vaping epidemic. And I think they really need to acknowledge that we have a marijuana epidemic that is not coming. It's already here."

Weed in the workplace

Big businesses including Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and Walmart face the same question as Arkansas' smallest mom and pop shops: What effect will medical marijuana have on the workforce?

By some estimates, about 20,000 people in the state could have medical marijuana patient cards by 2020. And most of those cardholders will be employed.

Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, but the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against disabled employees. That includes those recovering from drug addiction. But it doesn’t cover those who currently use illegal drugs.

So while licensed physicians can certify or even prescribe medical marijuana in some states, the Americans with Disabilities Act won't save an employee from being fired. That's been upheld time and again in courts across the country.

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the courts have been virtually uniform in saying that employers don’t have to accommodate an employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act in the use of medical marijuana,” said labor and employment attorney Daniel Herrington.

Many Arkansas workers who are cardholders might be surprised to know their protection from getting fired is limited and businesses can likely continue zero-tolerance drug policies.

Arkansas' law was modeled after Arizona's, but it leaves out a part that prohibits discrimination for a qualified patient's positive drug test.

“That was a volitional choice by our legislature, I believe, to say we're not going to protect an employee from the consequences of an adverse drug test,” Herrington said. “We are simply going to protect them from discrimination on their status of being a cardholder.”

Herrington sees numerous scenarios that will end up in court. What if a cardholder tests positive for marijuana and is fired even though there were no signs they were impaired at work? No test can show a person was under the influence of marijuana. A person either tests positive or they don’t.

“That's going to be a lawsuit eventually,” he said.

Herrington said that despite the time and expense of litigation, some of his clients are prepared to fight for zero-tolerance policies.

“If we have to be the test case, we will be the test case,” he said. “But we think the safety of our employees and customers and the public is important enough to take on that fight.”

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