'I'm on death row already': Sick Arkansans in limbo as they wait for medical marijuana

Arkansas voters passed the Medical Marijuana Amendment nearly 7 months ago, but potential patients will likely have to wait several more months.

'I'm on death row already': Sick Arkansans in limbo as they wait for medical marijuana

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) – Arkansas voters passed the Medical Marijuana Amendment nearly seven months ago, but potential patients will likely have to wait several more months.

The state’s legislature faces a deadline next week to review and vote on rules for the medical marijuana program. The Medical Marijuana Commission, which was established by the passed amendment, published the draft rules and took public comment; however, before the program can be established, state representatives and senators must confirm them.

As the hopeful cultivators and distributors finalize their applications, some Arkansans wait in limbo.

One man that we spoke with can only find refuge in illegally purchased marijuana. His chemotherapy treatments are taxing and smoking the drug eases his symptoms. Three years after his diagnosis, he is still waiting for the ability to purchase the substance legally. Because he is technically committing a crime, he spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

“I remember this clearly, the doctor came back, and it was like telling me a death sentence,” recalled the man. “He said you’ve got myeloma.”

As a former runner, the man always took pride in his fitness, but his diagnosis changed things. In March 2014, he started receiving treatment for myeloma, a rare blood cancer of plasma cells, at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. His treatment included intravenous chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.

“I was sick for a whole year after that. It was too rough.” He went on to say that he lost 50 pounds, as the treatment came to affect his entire body.

“It affects your kidneys, your lungs,” he told THV11. “I’ve had pneumonia about four different times at least.”

Doctors originally prescribed 13 pills a day, and about a year ago some other patients suggested trying marijuana along with it. That’s when he started purchasing cannabis. For him though, it’s not the high, but the relief that keeps him purchasing the drug.

“It takes away all my anxiety and brings me back to the old normal.”

As he fights cancer and waits for legal cannabis, others like Brian Faught, are working hard to make it happen. Faught wants to own a cultivation facility called ArCana.

“I really believe in the medicinal value of the product,” said Faught. “This is a great business opportunity. Every state that this is legal in, the industry itself is hugely successful.”

He's been a businessman for over 30 years, currently working as an independent contractor in the telecommunications industry. Now, he wants to be a part of the marijuana industry. He's already working to purchase five acres of land in Fayetteville for his potential business.

“Fayetteville has a reputation of being one of the most progressive cities in the south,” Faught explained. “I have the resources to do it, the business skillset to do it, and the want to do it.”

He’s working on his application every day. He even has a complete lineup of equipment needed, employees ready to work, and a security system in place. Faught’s already has several hundred thousand dollars invested in the process, but getting into the business isn't cheap, as cultivation facility applicants need proof of more than a million dollars in assets.

The Medical Marijuana Commission can issue just five cultivation facility licenses with up to 32 dispensary licenses.

“They want a complete business plan, they want a complete financial model, and they want a complete security plan,” explained Faught.

If the commission selects Faught’s proposal, he will get his license the following day.

“If I get my license on a Monday, I'll be living in Fayetteville on a Tuesday,” said Faught. “I'll have already arranged everything with my greenhouse company.”

Patients with cancer--and 17 other conditions including AIDS, Crohn's, Alzheimer's as well as conditions causing intractable pain, severe nausea, or seizures—would qualify for medical marijuana. A new report from the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement shows that 541,673 Arkansans would qualify for medical marijuana. According to the agency’s All-Payer Claims Database, the top five qualifying conditions are cancer, peripheral neuropathy, glaucoma, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s. In Pulaski County alone, there are over 71,000 Arkansans who qualify to receive medical marijuana.

The data used to analyze the number of qualifying patients was based on conditions listed in the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016. However, severe arthritis, intractable pain, severe nausea, severe muscle cramps, and fibromyalgia were not included in the final count due to imprecision or lack of diagnosis codes.

Those patients will be able to receive a registry identification card with a $50 fee and a written note from their physician.  The Arkansas Department of Health said they'll start issuing those cards about a month before medical marijuana is available for purchase. Faught said it will take about three months to construct his cultivation facility and another three to six months to grow the plant, since it can only be grown in the state of Arkansas.

Lawmakers expect the drug to be available as soon as early 2018. However, some lawmakers claim that the medical marijuana program is merely a backdoor legalization of recreational marijuana.

Republican state Representative David Meeks said the number of qualified application was much higher than anticipated. He claimed this high of a number will open medical marijuana up to abuse.

"Folks that may have the condition don't really need medical marijuana and they could be treated in some other way and that opens it up to a lot of other implications," he said. Meeks is also worried about the 20,000 youth that would be eligible for medical marijuana. He suggested the number is an alarming statistic that Arkansans should be worried about.

"I think it should be very concerning to Arkansans that the abuse could be there and that's going to put more pressure on our foster care system, schools, employers, and just families in general," Meeks said.

However, Faught said the fears of a possible backdoor recreational marijuana are overblown.

“This isn't a bunch of potheads that are going to go out and grow some weed,” he explained. “This is a pharmaceutical grade product grown in a pharmaceutical grade environment by very successful, very professional businessmen that serves a real medicinal need.”

That need is something that the man stricken with myeloma hopes he gets access to soon.

"With this myeloma, I’m on death row already,” he said. “I would like to try the different grades, find the one that works for me.”

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