The Fort Smith cultivator at the center of a long-running legal dispute over its license received approval as the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission renewed its permit Thursday.
River Valley Production, the Fort Smith cultivator that does business as River Valley Relief Cultivation, has been in a years-long protracted legal fight with 2600 Holdings, also known as Southern Roots, LLC over its license to cultivate medical marijuana. While a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of Southern Roots, the Arkansas Supreme Court stepped in, allowing River Valley to continue to cultivate while its case is adjudicated.
With River Valley's permit up for its annual renewal, the commission balked on approving the license for the Fort Smith cultivator, with commissioners unsure how to handle the matter. At Thursday's meeting, however, the commission's new legal counsel Julie Chavis told commissioners River Valley's application to renew its permit had been vetted by staff and their role was simply a "ministerial" one.
"These permit applications would not be on your agenda if the staff had not already fully vetted all of the documents that were submitted in support of renewal," Chavis said. "When I say this is a rubber stamp, I don't mean that in a negative way."
Chavis also told the commission she took issue with Southern Roots' attorney Abtin Mehdizadegan for writing a letter that was a "highly unusual and highly unprofessional piece of correspondence."
Mehdizadegan's letter urged commissioners to reject the permit for River Valley and said there was a conflict of interest with Doralee Chandler, the former director of Alcoholic Beverage Control, representing the Department of Finance and Administration. Chandler resigned as ABC director in February to take a role in the Attorney General's office, which is representing the department in the lawsuit.
In his letter, Mehdizadegan told commissioners Chandler has a conflict of interest as she is "a necessary witness," and that the Attorney General's office where she works cannot faithfully represent the Department of Finance and Administration, which is the defendant in the case.
Chavis also took issue with Mehdizadegan for sending the letter to the commissioners without notifying her, saying "It is impermissible for an attorney to talk to an attorney's client without the knowledge of that attorney." Chavis also said it was improper for Mehdizadegan to write to the commission, saying they are not lawmakers who can be lobbied but more like judges who should make decisions without undue influence.
In an interview after the meeting, Mehdizadegan said Chavis' comment was retaliation for exercising his free speech. Mehdizadegan also said was unaware Chavis was the new legal counsel for the commission.
"Everyone -- everyone -- has a right to [seek a] redress [from] their government," he said. "That's one of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment."
Mehdizadegan also asked a judge to disqualify the Attorney General's office from representing the Department of Finance in the case in a filing Tuesday. On Thursday, the Attorney General's office responded, saying the request would leave the department without proper representation.
"Today I responded to the motion seeking to disqualify the Office of the Attorney General from representing the state agencies sued by 2600 Holdings, LLC," Attorney General Tim Griffin said in a statement. "Not only does the Pulaski County Circuit Court lack jurisdiction to rule on the motion due to a pending appeal, but the plaintiff's request is also frivolous. There is no conflict of interest prohibiting the Attorney General from continuing as the defendants' lawyer. And removing the Attorney General as counsel of record would force the defendants to hire private counsel at taxpayer expense. The motion lacks merit and should be denied."
The commission's decision to renew the cultivation license for River Valley is the latest development in the more than two-year-long legal dispute.
In 2021, Southern Roots sued the Department of Finance and Administration, Alcoholic Beverage Control and Medical Marijuana Commission, saying the department erroneously awarded a cultivation license to River Valley.
In his November order siding with Southern Roots, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright said River Valley's location was within 3,000 feet of a Sebastian County Juvenile Detention Center, considered a school, and thus a violation of state rules. He also said River Valley was not in good standing with the Secretary of State's Office, as Bennett "Storm" Nolan, one of the businessmen behind the cultivator, had filed articles of dissolution.
BROOKLAND DISPENSARY'S MOVE OK'D
The commission also approved the transfer application for NEA Full Spectrum, allowing the Brookland medical marijuana dispensary to move 9.9 miles to Jonesboro.
NEA Full Spectrum's proposed move had been on the commission's agenda for May 18 but commissioners held off on making a decision.
Crop Co., a Jonesboro dispensary, argued Full Spectrum's proposed site would violate state regulations as it would be within 1,500 feet of a facility that serves patients with developmental issues, and that the dispensary was given a license to serve patients in rural areas.
However, after an investigation state officials found the new site would be in compliance with the rules.
Commission member Reggie Thomas voted against the move, saying NEA Full Spectrum had already been approved for a new site in Paragould but never made the move.