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story.lead_photo.caption In this Sept. 15, 2015 file photo, marijuana plants are a few weeks away from harvest at a medical marijuana cultivation center. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

Nearly two months in, Arkansas’ medical marijuana sales have surpassed those of some larger states also in their infancies in the market.

Since the first dispensary opened in Hot Springs on May 10, medical marijuana sales have totaled $2.2 million, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration.

Arkansas’ legal cannabis market outpaced more-populated Ohio, which debuted medical marijuana earlier this year. The first two months of Ohio sales were just shy of $2 million, according to the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program.

The Natural State’s sales numbers have more closely resembled neighboring Oklahoma, where the first dispensary opened in October. Oklahoma dispensaries sold about $1 million of cannabis in the second month of legal sales, and its sales numbers jumped in the third month, eclipsing $4.3 million in January, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

State and industry officials in Arkansas expect sales to continue climbing as the patient pools grow and more dispensaries open in the coming months.

As of Friday, the Arkansas Department of Health had approved 15,743 patients and caregivers for medical marijuana ID cards. A fifth dispensary opened for business Wednesday, and the state is set to have 27 more dispensaries.

“Sales in Arkansas appear to be some of the strongest in the industry,” said Doralee Chandler, director of Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control, which regulates some aspects of medical marijuana. “They have remained consistent with the addition of each dispensary. Based on this pattern, we do not anticipate any decrease in sales for existing dispensaries as new ones open across the state and begin to service the needs of qualifying patients in remaining regions.”

More dispensaries are expected to open in the coming months. Over that same period, the final three licensed growers are expected to begin making product available.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission issued five cultivation licenses and 32 dispensary licenses under Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution. The amendment legalized medical cannabis in Arkansas after voters approved the measure in 2016, but legal and regulatory hurdles slowed the program’s rollout.

In addition to the state’s regular 6.5% sales tax, the Arkansas General Assembly authorized the collection of a special 4% privilege tax on medical marijuana transactions between cultivators, dispensaries and patients.

The Department of Finance and Administration collected $47,289 in sales tax revenue from May medical marijuana sales (these figures don’t include any city or county sales taxes). It collected $55,396 from the privilege tax. Dispensaries and cultivators must pay June’s taxes by July 20.

The agency expects a fully mature market in Arkansas of 40,000 patients. A market of that size would generate $2.5 million annually in sales tax revenue.

Dragan Vicentic, owner of Green Springs Medical Dispensary in Hot Springs, said he has been pleased with sales so far. Green Springs, which was the second dispensary to open in Arkansas, has sold 217.1 pounds of cannabis — 130.7 pounds more than its closest competitor, according to finance department data.

“It’s been great,” Vicentic said. “It’s pretty easy when there’s only a couple of dispensaries open. Now as more dispensaries open, it’s going to separate the men from the boys.”

Vicentic said a chief complaint of patients has been the high price of the drug, which sells in Arkansas for $15 per gram while being closer to $10 per gram in other states. In Arkansas, the medicinal drug costs a fraction of what can be bought on the street, although state-regulated cannabis must go through extensive lab testing for quality assurance, and no one regulates street drugs.

Vicentic said he expects prices to drop 25%-40% once all five cultivation facilities are fully operational.

Demitri Downing, founder of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association in Arizona, agreed with Vicentic. He said prices will drop as the industry matures in Arkansas. Arizona legalized medical cannabis in 2010, and it now has 120 dispensaries.

“Prices were high here at the start,” Downing said. “The quicker you have a taxed and regulated market, the quicker prices will drop.”

Downing noted that it’s also important to move patients off the black market and into regulated dispensaries over the first few months of legalization.

Vicentic said there are still many patients buying on the black market, but he expects them to try dispensaries once prices drop.

“When they try it and see how much better a product this is than what’s on the street, they’ll never buy off the street again,” Vicentic said.

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