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VOL. 131 | NO. 232 | Monday, November 21, 2016

Arkansas Lawmakers Weigh Launch Delay, Taxes for Medical Pot

By ANDREW DeMILLO, Associated Press

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – Arkansas lawmakers are considering delaying the launch of the first medical marijuana program in the Bible Belt as well as an effort to impose taxes on the drug, as they work on legislation for next year's session spelling out how pot would be made available to patients.

The ideas are among several that lawmakers are discussing after voters approved a constitutional amendment earlier this month allowing eligible patients to buy marijuana from licensed dispensaries. The state 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.

Rep. Doug House, who has been tapped by House Speaker Jeremy Gillam to focus on medical marijuana issues, said he's working on legislation that would give state agencies until early May rather than early March to adopt rules for the drug's regulation. The Republican lawmaker said it would also change the deadline for the state to begin accepting dispensary applications from June 1 to July 1. The change is needed to allow the public to weigh in on the rules and to have enough time to award contracts, House said.

"The time window is just not big enough," House said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and most of the majority-Republican Legislature opposed the medical marijuana measure, but the GOP governor has said he won't block its implementation and lawmakers on Friday approved his request to use $3 million from the state's rainy day fund to pay for its startup. Hutchinson stopped short of saying whether he'd support giving agencies more time to adopt the medical pot rules.

"Our intention as the executive branch is to move expeditiously for the implementation of the rules, but because of the legislative review of the rules, that process takes longer," he said in a statement. "So it is up to the Legislature to decide whether or not to extend that timeframe."

Sen. Bart Hester said he's studying a proposal to impose an additional tax on medical marijuana, a move that he says would help pay for a $105 million income tax cut he's proposed. Hester said he hasn't determined how the tax would be structured or the rate he'd propose, but said he believed it could win support from fellow Republicans who have signed a no-tax pledge, since it would be offset by a reduction elsewhere.

"It is a total burden on the taxpayer, it's a total burden on the people, so I think we have to find a way to make the people abusing this product to actually provide relief for those negatively affected by it," the Republican lawmaker said.

The head of the campaign behind the medical marijuana measure said he's not opposed to giving agencies more time to launch the program, but criticized the idea of an additional tax on the drug.

"I think it's outrageous that you would fund an income tax cut on the backs of sick people," said David Couch, head of Arkansans United for Medical Marijuana.

Another idea legislative leaders are weighing is changing how sales tax revenue from medical marijuana would be distributed. The amendment currently has 10 percent going toward agencies regulating the drug, with most of the remaining money going toward career education and job training programs.

"We're not going to go in the hole on this. We've got to make sure those costs are in line with the revenue," the Republican speaker said.

Lawmakers said they still face plenty of unanswered questions as they work on medical marijuana, including how much freedom the amendment will give the Legislature to limit the drug.

"I think all of us are going to have to get familiar with something that currently we're not, from the way the dispensaries work to the way the growing facilities work," Senate President Jonathan Dismang, a Republican, said. "This is all brand new territory for everybody at the Capitol."

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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