In an about-face, state regulators now say they are open to pausing the ongoing effort to set up Ohio’s new medical marijuana program, in light of concerns raised by Ohio Auditor Dave Yost and others.
State Commerce Director Jacqueline Williams in a Thursday letter to Yost referred to errors a state employee made in scoring applications from companies seeking licenses to open marijuana growing operations. These errors were discovered as state officials reviewed documents requested by Yost’s office, and caused one company to be incorrectly denied a provisional state marijuana-growing license, cleveland.com reported Thursday.
However, even though the state is responsible for the process of launching the medical marijuana program, Williams left the ball in Yost’s court in deciding whether delaying the licensing process is necessary. Besides granting permanent growing licenses, the state still needs to license marijuana-product processors, as well as product-testing labs, to get Ohio’s medical marijuana program launched before a Sept. 8 legal deadline.
“Given the reservations raised by your office, the department remains willing to pause any portion of the MMCP’s [Medical Marijuana Control Program] process that you deem necessary, if appropriate,” Williams said in the letter. “After our discussion, please advise the department if your office believes any such additional action is necessary.”
The Auditor’s Office is still deciding how to respond to the letter, spokeswoman Beth Gianforcaro said Friday.
State officials previously had insisted that their license-review process would continue, despite concerns raised by Yost, as well as ongoing reporting by cleveland.com that showed flaws in the licensing process. For instance, a cleveland.com investigation found four provisional cultivator license winners were not technically in compliance with Ohio law barring marijuana businesses from locating within 500 feet of a church, school, playground, library or other prohibited location when they submitted applications in June 2017.
Yost’s office began reviewing the application review process after reports that the department didn’t know one scoring consultant had a felony marijuana conviction on his record and that two other consultants had possible conflicts of interest with a license winner. After launching the review, Yost found that a security weakness in the state’s license-scoring platform could have allowed a rogue state employee to tamper with the scoring without leaving a discernible paper trail. Williams’ Thursday letter says the state has addressed that vulnerability.
Depending on the specifics, any “pause” could place the state at risk of missing the Sept. 8 launch deadline laid out in the state law creating the program.
In an interview Friday, State Sen. Bill Coley, a critic of how the commerce department has handled the medical marijuana program launch, said he still thinks the state may need to reboot its licensing program altogether.
He said such a move wouldn’t necessarily require state lawmakers to OK an extension of the Sept. 8 deadline. But, he said awarding licenses through a flawed process only would give fodder for legal challenges from companies that were passed over for state licenses.
“I don’t think it necessarily has to delay the implementation dates and stuff involved,” said Coley, a Republican who represents the Cincinnati area. “…But if we don’t act, what would any judge say that gets a motion for a restraining order? The court is going to have to restrain the process. So why not get it done right, and get it done quickly?”
In a statement, Thomas Rosenberger, the leader of an association of Ohio medical marijuana companies, said any delay in setting up the program would only “prolong patient suffering.” He encouraged state officials to grant an additional growing license to address the company that was erroneously denied a license.
“We commend the Ohio Department of Commerce on their transparency as they review their procedures,” he said. “Adding a 25th license after identifying a scoring issue is a fair and reasonable resolution that remedies the error and does not jeopardize the program or Ohio’s patients’ access to the medicine they so desperately need.”