Bill Would Bar Ohio Medical Marijuana Grows During Audit Of State Scoring Process

Photo Credit: David Wallace

Sen. Bill Coley introduced a bill Wednesday that would freeze the award of final licenses to 24 medical marijuana growers while state auditors examine how license applications were reviewed and scored.

The Ohio Department of Commerce awarded provisional licenses to 24 companies in November. But licensees have nine months to obtain a final certificate of operation before growing marijuana plants.

Under Senate Bill 264, State Auditor Dave Yost would have 30 days to wrap up his office’s audit of the Ohio Department of Commerce’s procedures for reviewing and ranking marijuana business licenses. The department would then have 30 days to implement the audit’s recommendations or explain why it chose not to adopt changes.

“By doing this we can remove any clouds of suspicion or clouds of impropriety from the medical marijuana process and when that process starts up this fall, everyone can be assured that process was correct and done in the best interest of Ohio taxpayers and patients who are part of the system,” Coley, a Liberty Township Republican, said at a Thursday news conference.

Meanwhile, the department could not award final certificates of operation to medical marijuana cultivators, testing labs and processors that make marijuana products. The department could continue awarding provisional licenses to testing labs and processors, Coley said.

Thomas Rosenberger, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association of Ohio, said Coley’s bill would delay patient access by several months. Cultivators planned to get final licenses in mid-March, and a 60-day delay from the time the bill passes could push those awards back to June or July.

The first crop of plants could take 16 weeks or more to harvest, according to plans detailed in cultivator applications, and wouldn’t be ready in time for the medical marijuana law’s Sept. 8 deadline for the program to be operational.

Coley said the audit could show the department needs to rescore the applications with different people reviewing the applications or allow applicants to submit additional information.

Yost’s office began examining the cultivator scoring process in early December, following reports the agency unknowingly hired one consultant with a felony marijuana conviction on his record and two others with ties to one of the winning companies.

Concerns about the process have escalated in the past two weeks. Auditors found two state employees had access to application scorers’ passwords and could have changed scores or application documents without leaving a trace.

A investigation found the department did not verify several pass-fail criteria during the scoring process.

Three days after the security flaw was made public, the department admitted an unintentional scoring error prevented one company from winning a license.

On Friday, Department Director Jacqueline Williams sought Yost’s permission to pause any portion of the medical marijuana control program.

Yost, who had called for a program freeze in December, replied Wednesday that it is too late for such a pause. Some winning companies have begun building facilities, and six unsuccessful applicants sued the state this week over alleged scoring errors.

“We appreciate Sen. Coley’s leadership on this issue and will work closely with him and his colleagues in the General Assembly to take the steps necessary to ensure Ohioans have confidence in the medical marijuana program,” Yost said in a statement Thursday.

A Department of Commerce spokeswoman declined to comment on Coley’s bill but said it plans to move forward with issuing licenses and implementing the program.

“We appreciate the auditor of state’s advice to proceed with the program and we will take it, while continuing to seek ways to improve it as we have from the beginning,” spokeswoman Kerry Francis said in an email.

Coley said there seemed to be some confusion at the Department of Commerce as to whether they had the authority to freeze the program.

“This bill will make it crystal clear that they do,” Coley said.