In a split vote, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission on Wednesday elected to hire an outside consultant to score the applications for the state’s first cannabis dispensaries, clearing the way for licenses to be issued before the end of the year.

On another matter, the commission debated and then backed an earlier staff decision to reject a cultivation license hopeful.

Regarding the scoring of dispensary applications, the Office of State Procurement expects to take just over a month to solicit bids from consulting firms; the lowest bidder will then have 30 days to grade the 203 dispensary applications.

The decision to hire a third party comes after the five commissioners themselves graded more than 80 applications for growing permits earlier this year. That process was plagued by legal delays and accusations of impropriety.

The panel also faces a December deadline because two commissioners’ terms end, and state officials have cautioned that having new commission members finish the licensing process could cause additional legal hurdles.

However, several commissioners expressed unease at outsourcing scoring to a consultant, saying it was “abdicating” the commission’s sole duty.

The measure ultimately passed in a 3-2 vote.

“This helps get everything done and get the product out to the patients,” Commissioner James Miller said before Wednesday’s vote.

The commission also formally voted to hold unsuccessful cultivation applications in reserve for two years. The move will give the commission the ability to pull an applicant off the top in case a current licensee forfeits its growing permit.

A handful of unsuccessful cultivation license applicants have criticized the decision, saying it’s designed to shield the commission from lawsuits and equates to changing the rules in the middle of the game.

The Arkansas Supreme Court in a June ruling on the medical marijuana licensing process held that certain lawsuits weren’t ripe until an applicant had been formally denied by the commission. Under the commission’s new rule, unsuccessful applications won’t be denied for two years.

Arkansas became one of 30 states to legalize medical marijuana in 2016 when voters approved Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution. Like other states, the drug’s implementation in Arkansas has been delayed by legal and regulatory delays.

But earlier this month the first growing licenses were issued, and Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration, said the agency expects to issue the first dispensary licenses in November.

It’s unclear how much money it will cost the state to hire an independent scorer.

“We’re all breaking new ground here, so I’d be hesitant to estimate the cost,” said David Withrow, a state procurement attorney.

Procurement officials will seek out a five-person consulting team, mirroring the makeup of the commission. Withrow also said they’ll seek a group with experience in health care and cannabis or horticulture.

Industry and state officials have projected that medical cannabis, which to be used in Arkansas must be grown in Arkansas, will be available for purchase next summer.

The commissioners spent the bulk of Wednesday’s meeting in a spirited debate over whether to overturn the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division staff’s decision to disqualify one cultivation company from consideration for a license after the commissioners had already scored its application.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Division staff, which provides administrative support to the commission, removed Carpenter Medical Group from consideration for a growing permit despite previously clearing the company for scoring by commissioners.

The application was among about 10 of the top-scoring proposals pulled for a final review just before all of the scores were publicly revealed to ensure each met the criteria for a license. The Carpenter group would have ranked sixth, making it the first in line to receive a cultivation license if one of the five top-scoring companies had to forfeit its permit.

During that final review, a discrepancy in Carpenter Medical’s disclosed ownership stakes was discovered, resulting in the application being tossed. While several other applications were disqualified for failing to meet minimum criteria for merit-scoring, the Carpenter proposal was the only one tossed after being scored by the commission.

Abraham Carpenter, one of the group’s principals, argued that his team’s application was treated unfairly, and two commissioners and a handful of state lawmakers agreed. Carpenter has admitted that his application contained different ownership percentages because of a “scrivener’s error,” but he said his group’s proposal shouldn’t have been removed because the correct ownership percentages were in the application.

He said the Alcoholic Beverage Control staff didn’t adequately represent his group’s position at Wednesday’s meeting.

The commission, in a 3-2 vote, affirmed the staff’s decision to disqualify Carpenter Medical, but the commission chairman, Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman, passionately defended Carpenter’s team.

“I bet you could go through every last one of these applications and find something wrong with them,” she said. “If you nitpick every last one of them, I bet you would find something.”

Indeed, one of the winning applications, submitted by Delta Medical Cannabis Co., also listed different ownership percentages in separate portions of its application. However, Delta Medical Cannabis’ error was in the exhibits it submitted, whereas the Carpenter group’s error was in one of the required application forms.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Division is investigating any issues and allegations brought against Delta Medical Cannabis and the four other cultivation license holders, according to a spokesman.