Oklahoma Health Department: We Can’t Afford To Regulate Medical Marijuana

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

The fallout from financial problems at the Oklahoma State Department of Health could interfere with regulation of medical marijuana, if voters approve it in June.

The department’s financial position also could delay construction to replace an aging laboratory that screens newborns for genetic conditions and tests for infectious diseases.

Interim Commissioner Preston Doerflinger and other officials updated the board on the health department’s financial condition at a Tuesday morning meeting. The board also voted to increase Doerflinger’s pay to $189,000 and to fill the department’s top ethics position.

Lawmakers appropriated $30 million to stabilize the department late last year after a cash crunch came to light. Federal officials, a legislative committee and a grand jury are investigating allegations that the department’s leaders moved around federal funds inappropriately and used questionable accounting techniques to cover shortfalls.

Since October, the department has announced it will lay off more than 150 employees and has cut grants for child abuse prevention programs and community health centers.

The decision to give Doerflinger a raise at a time when the agency was having trouble meeting its other financial obligations rankled some lawmakers, including state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, a Republican from Slaughterville.

“The salary announcement comes while the Health Department continues plans to lay off over 200 hardworking folks in this state. Oklahomans deserve better,” Cleveland said in a statement.

Doerflinger as interim will earn about $16,000 more than he did at the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, but about $5,000 less than the prior health commissioner.

The board members didn’t elaborate on their compensation decision before voting.

New office needed

State Question 788, which would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana if a doctor signed a license, would require the department to create an office to review applications and issue licenses to patients, growers and people involved in processing or selling cannabis. It also would be tasked with inspecting marijuana processing facilities.

“We would have to create a new division, hire an administrator and staff for an area where we currently have no expertise,” department spokesman Tony Sellars said. “It would not be feasible under our current situation.”

Doerflinger was more optimistic on the department’s ability to replace its aging public health laboratory, though he said the existing facility likely will need to hold on a little longer. Lawmakers authorized about $58 million in bonds in 2017, after then-commissioner Terry Cline warned the lab could lose its accreditation. In 2014, officials estimated it would cost Oklahoma about $9 million annually to send its tests to other states if the lab lost accreditation.

Brian Downs, director of state and federal policy at the Health Department, said the department has delayed issuing the bonds that will pay for the new facility. They could be issued at some point in the budget year starting in July if the Legislature appropriates enough money to make the first of 10 annual payments, he said.

Once the bonds are issued, the department can start hiring architects and other contractors, Downs said. He said he wasn’t sure when the new lab could be ready to use.

New accountability chief

Board members voted to appoint Don Smalling, formerly the health department’s chief of safety and security, as interim director of the Office of Accountability Systems. He will oversee audits and investigations into illegal activity or mismanagement.

The accountability job had been vacant since the board fired Jay Holland in December. The board also earlier fired Don Maisch, the department’s top lawyer, and accepted resignations from Cline and deputy commissioner Julie Cox-Kain.

Board members said they considered funding for the new lab a top priority, but otherwise don’t expect to spend much time asking lawmakers for money when they begin a new session in February. Member Dr. Robert Stewart said the board will focus on getting the department’s “house in order” this year.