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Medical cannabis delays vexing to patients in state

Josh Nicholson wants to take his wife to the movies again, but for that, he needs cannabis.

Chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder make a two-hour film unbearable for Nicholson, and opioids and other drugs don't provide the same relief as medical-grade marijuana.

The 38-year-old moved to Arkansas from Illinois for his wife's work in 2017. Here, he expected to continue a treatment regimen that included cannabis, but shortly after he arrived, the process for allowing medical use of the drug got trapped in the slow-turning gears of government bureaucracy.

Nicholson, like 5,546 other qualified patients in Arkansas, has been vexed by the regulatory and court fights holding his medicine hostage.

"It's very discouraging," Nicholson said. "I've gotten the doctor's certification, but I can't obtain it legally. What's the purpose of it being legal if I don't have access to my medicine?"

Patients across the state now face the same question many asked themselves before Arkansans voted to legalize the controversial drug in 2016: Should they go without their medicine or obtain marijuana illegally? More and more are turning to the black market, said Melissa Fults, a longtime patient advocate.

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"They have a choice: They can suffer and die or they can break the law," Fults said. "That's seriously what it comes down to."

Many patients expected the first medical-marijuana dispensaries to open within a year of voters approving Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution, which legalized the drug.

But state government's process for implementing its medical-marijuana program has been plagued with delays from the outset, and earlier this year, the program spent nearly four months in regulatory purgatory after a lawsuit prevented the state from moving forward with the process to license the first cannabis growers and sellers.

That lawsuit -- filed by one of the companies that failed to win a cultivation permit -- was officially dismissed Tuesday, freeing the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission to issue the first growing licenses. But even the earliest projections don't have the drug available until mid-2019.

And with the threat of more legal challenges, no clear end is in sight.

Roger Halpin, a 60-year-old patient from Mulberry, has learned not to get his hopes up. The Army veteran suffers from neuropathy in both legs, a herniated disc in his back, post-traumatic stress disorder and arthritis.

"I've totally lost trust in the state," he said. "Lies and lies and lies."

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Halpin said he sleeps better and experiences far less pain when using medical cannabis. Without it, his activity is limited, and he can't do some activities he loves, like hiking, he said.

"I'd even just like to walk through the grocery store without having to get a [motorized] cart," Halpin said.

Halpin -- Nicholson, too -- have decided to wait until medical marijuana is legally available, but other patients interviewed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette won't wait any longer.

One 56-year-old Little Rock woman, who asked not to be quoted by name so she could discuss her drug use candidly, purchases marijuana illegally each week to treat her glaucoma and dystonia -- a disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions and cramps.

She worries about the quality of the drugs she purchases, whether they're the right strain at a fair price. She worries that a police officer will knock on her door one day and take away her freedom and monthly disability checks.

But she's tired of waiting, and the risk is worth taking.

"Because of how much better I feel," she said. "It lightens the pain and puts me in a mood to do my stretches."

LaRee Williams Treece, 57, was approved for a patient card because she has fibromyalgia, and other drugs cause her to have an allergic reaction. For Treece and many others in the tight-knit patient community, the delays started back in 2016 with the fight that played out between supporters of cannabis legalization.

Treece and Fults backed a competing medical marijuana proposal in 2016 that would have included less government regulation and a provision that would allow patients to grow their own cannabis. That measure -- known as Issue 7 -- was tossed off the ballot under a court challenge shortly before election day.

They criticize Issue 6, which became Amendment 98, for being more focused on benefiting businesses than helping patients.

Little Rock attorney David Couch, the author of Issue 6, said Issue 7 was flawed in three main ways. It polled below 50 percent; it was an initiated act, which could have been "substantially altered" by the General Assembly; and he said the system for growing licenses, which would've required nonprofit owners, would've resulted in higher patient costs because the growing operations would have been contracted out to third-party, for-profit companies.

Couch agreed that the state's rollout of Amendment 98 has lost its patient focus.

"It's been all about business so far, and that's not what it should've been about," he said. Couch has been pushing for the commission to scrap its merit-based process for issuing growing and selling permits and adopting a lottery-style system that's similar to liquor permitting.

"Let's get the medicine out there," he said. "The patients have been forgotten long enough."

Treece, Fults and other patients also pointed to the makeup of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, which includes two doctors, a pharmacist, a lobbyist and a consultant -- some of whom opposed the legalization of medical marijuana. The commission members are appointed by the heads of the executive and legislative branches.

The panel, which is in charge of issuing cultivation and dispensary licenses, should've included at least one patient or patient advocate, Fults said.

"The people who were appointed completely failed their jobs," said Fults, who is running as a Democrat for state Senate. "I don't blame them because when you appoint someone with no knowledge about what they should be doing how can they not fail?

"Patients have been forgotten from the very get-go."

Nicholson hopes he and his wife can begin going to the theater and comedy clubs again this year, but that seems unlikely even by industry insiders' most optimistic projections of when medical cannabis will be available for purchase.

Nicholson -- once he can access his medicine again -- is excited to play his guitar for more than a few minutes at a time. Until then, he'll manage as best he can.

"I don't have a choice; I have to make it," he said. "I just want my life back."

A Section on 07/12/2018

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