From litigation to audits to legislation, the attempted fixes are piling up for an Ohio medical marijuana program that has been beset by problems. But the officials in charge of the program — Gov. John Kasich and Commerce Director Jacqueline Williams — have been slow to acknowledge those difficulties.
That’s left some doubting whether medical marijuana will be available in Ohio by the Sept. 8 deadline.
Not long after the Commerce Department awarded provisional licenses for large growers last year, one disappointed bidder, Cincinnati businessman Jimmy Gould, conducted background checks and discovered that a consultant in the screening process had been convicted of drug crimes. When that came to light, Williams didn’t admit any mistakes; she said her department wasn’t required to do background checks of vendors.
That response was woefully inadequate in the eyes of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost.
“That’s not acknowledging a mistake; it’s defending what you did and saying it’s all right,” he said last week.
A subsequent review by his office revealed that inadequate computer security could have allowed applications to be altered, undermining confidence in their scoring.
Gould and 19 other would-be growers are suing, saying among other things that five companies that received provisional licenses didn’t meet threshold requirements, such as having adequate setbacks from schools and other stipulated locales. And 60 of the 109 companies that applied for 12 large-grow licenses have filed administrative appeals of their rejections, Gould’s lawyers say.
Earlier this month, after months of scrutiny and criticism, the Commerce Department itself admitted that it mishandled applications in a way that rejected a company that should have been selected. The department said it would look for a way to create an additional license for it after Sept. 8.
But for Yost and at least one state lawmaker, it’s too little, too late. Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester, filed legislation last week that would require Yost’s office to audit the way applications for medical marijuana licenses have been handled by the Commerce Department before any sales can begin.
“What I think I’m seeing in the legislation is a serious crisis of confidence in the willingness and competence of the Department of Commerce to operate this program,” Yost said.
“Right now, I think it’s a culmination of a lot of mistakes,” he said.
Senate Bill 264 would require Yost to complete an audit within 30 days of its effective date, and it would require the Commerce Department to implement its recommendations. He said he thinks he can get the bill passed by the end of March.
“I don’t think it has to delay the September start” of the medical marijuana program, Coley said.
Yost also doesn’t want to delay the start of the program. In a letter to Williams last week, he said that would be unfair to businesses that have invested in medical marijuana cultivation.
But one group, the National Cannabis Industry Association of Ohio, said Coley’s bill would delay the availability of medical marijuana in Ohio.
“Auditor Yost made clear in his letter to the Ohio Department of Commerce that he did not want to prolong patient suffering by putting Ohio’s Medical Marijuana Control Program on hold while he completes his audit. Senate Bill 264 would do just that, by delaying the issuance of certificates of operation for months,” the group’s executive director, Thomas Rosenberger, said in statement.
Gould, whose lawsuit is demanding that the applications be reviewed all over again, is fine if implementation is delayed.
“They may have their shovels in the ground,” he said in a press conference Friday. “That’s not our problem. That’s not really the state’s problem.”
He added that he thinks Kasich, who signed the medical marijuana law but still questions the message it sends children, is intentionally interfering with its implementation.
“Was this program intentionally derailed?” Gould asked. “Was this program by design under the direction of the administration put forth to fail?”
Kasich’s office was contacted twice last week about problems with the medical marijuana program. Late Friday, it referred the questions to the Commerce Department, which had earlier said it had been seeking ways to improve the program “from the beginning.”
“The department issued rules that the advisory committee provided input on, and we are now implementing the program the General Assembly created,” Kerry Francis, the department’s chief of communications, said in an email. “The auditor has encouraged us to keep the program moving forward, and he continues to be a good source of advice on our ongoing efforts to improve the program.”
Coley said it’s time for a reckoning.
“I hope my commerce director, I hope my governor can say we’ve made some mistakes,” he said. “Let’s press the reset button.”