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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - This Sept. 30, 2016, file photo shows a marijuana bud before harvesting at a rural area near Corvallis, Ore. The Oregon agency overseeing the state's legal medical marijuana industry admits in a report it has not effectively provided oversight of growers and others, creating opportunities for weed to be diverted into the highly profitable black market. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

A Boston-based consultant is set to grade the more than 200 applications for Arkansas' first medical marijuana dispensary licenses -- a move geared to steer the process away from the controversy that embroiled the awarding of growing permits earlier this year.

Public Consulting Group Inc. was one of just two companies to respond to the state's "scope of work" issued two weeks ago to 30 companies that fit the bill to grade the cannabis-selling proposals.

The group said it could grade the 203 dispensary applications in 30 days for $99,472. The other consultant, Virginia-based ICF Inc. LLC, submitted a price of $361,514.

State procurement officials expect to complete the required paperwork within the next week, and if all checks out, Public Consulting Group may begin its work.

The contract won't require legislative approval because the proposal costs less than $100,000. Approval from the Arkansas Legislative Council would've delayed grading by at least another month, said Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin.

Aside from a group of state procurement officials, Alex Gray, an attorney for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Association, was the only other person in attendance Thursday as the bidders were revealed. He praised the selection of a consultant.

"It is my understanding that the lowest bidder, Public Consulting Group Inc., is well qualified to score the dispensary applications," Gray said. "The Medical Marijuana Commission should be commended for its decision to hire outside help ensuring a fair scoring process."

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission voted to outsource dispensary license scoring to an outside group after a controversial cultivation licensing process. The five commissioners graded the 83 proposals for medical marijuana growing licenses themselves, but a wave of unsuccessful applicants derided that process, alleging commissioner bias, scoring errors and failure on the part of regulators to verify claims made in each application.

[DOCUMENTS: Read complaints filed + winning applications from top five growers]

All five cultivation licenses have been formally issued, and those companies are in the beginning stages of construction of the facilities around the state where the crops will be grown.

The commissioners are also under a crunch to complete the dispensary licensing process before the end of the year when two commissioners' terms expire.

Arkansans voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2016. The drug, under Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution, must be grown in Arkansas, but thus far legal and regulatory delays have slowed the program's implementation.

It's unknown whether Public Consulting Group has worked with other states on their medical cannabis programs, and a company spokesman didn't respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

The commission sought a consultant that could provide a "diverse" five-member team to grade the applications with, preferably, at least one person with experience in agriculture, horticulture or cannabis industries.

The scope of work also required any consultant to ensure it had no conflicts of interest with any dispensary company stockholders.

The final scores are due 30 days after Public Consulting Group receives the applications or at an alternate date negotiated with the commission. The contract will impose a $5,000 penalty for each day the scores are late.

Public Consulting Group has had about a dozen state contracts in Arkansas since 2012, totaling about $5.6 million. All the contracts have been with either the Department of Human Services or the Insurance Department for mostly consulting and computer services.

The company's quote to grade the dispensary applications came in well under most industry experts' projections. David Couch, the Little Rock attorney who drafted Amendment 98, said the dollar amount surprised him, but he didn't see any red flags with Public Consulting Group.

"It's such a good deal that it almost makes you ask, 'So what's the catch?'" Couch said. "But you look at [Public Consulting Group] and they look legitimate."

As of Aug. 13, 5,783 patients had been approved by the Arkansas Department of Health to receive medical marijuana registry ID cards. The cards will allow patients with one of 14 qualifying conditions to purchase medical cannabis from one of 32 licensed dispensaries once they open.

A Section on 08/17/2018

Print Headline: Firm picked to rank applicants for Arkansas medical marijuana vending licenses

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