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Lawmakers grill state medical marijuana leaders

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Lawmakers continued to grill leaders of the state’s medical marijuana program March 4, and the discussion went into the late hours of the night.

In its third hearing concerning the medical marijuana program, members of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight suggested there were issues in the application scoring process, potential conflicts of interest and concerns about the limited number of facilities awarded in the state.

The six-hour meeting featured testimony from Office of Administration representatives and Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams.

“I don’t believe any of our concerns were alleviated last night,” said committee member Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, in an interview following the hearing. “All the same questions remain.”

This has been an ongoing conversation among state leaders and industry players since the lineup for the state’s medical marijuana industry was finalized in January. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services received over 2,100 applications last year for just 348 available licenses.

Denied applicants are pointing to inconsistencies in the scoring, which was contracted to a third-party company, Wise Health Solutions LLC, to avoid conflicts of interest and favoritism, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. By press time, 850 appeals were submitted to the state’s Administrative Hearing Committee, according to DHSS Director of Communications Lisa Cox. 

Quade also expressed concern regarding the number of facilities that were licensed in comparison to the number of qualified patients in the state. The state awarded the minimum number of cultivation, infused-product manufacturing and dispensary licenses outlined in the medical marijuana amendment.

As of press time, nearly 39,000 patients were approved for medical marijuana use in the state, Cox said. This far exceeds the projection of 22,500 qualified patients by the end of 2021 from a University of Missouri study conducted per state request. Quade also was concerned the MU study conducted last year did not go through the state’s request for proposal process.

“I think the bare minimum is not enough. I really hope the committee and that we all in this room consider a conversation on reopening [the scoring process],” Quade said in the hearing. “We’re not letting the free market participate in this, and it’s really hard for me to get past this.”

Amy Moore, deputy director of the medical marijuana program, said in response that the legislature has the ability to create a free market for medical marijuana by raising the licensing minimums.

“You need to also consider the cost of regulating 2,200 facilities,” she said. “If we had 2,200 facilities with any hope of … keeping the smallest of the closest of eye on these facilities, our budget, our FTEs, would have to skyrocket.”

Moore’s husband, Blake Markus, is a Jefferson City attorney with medical marijuana clients, which led to further discussion surrounding a potential conflict of interest. She said during the hearing that if the state investigated, it would find no instances of impropriety.

“Did I ever use my position for personal gain? No,” she said. “Did I ever allow my personal relationships to affect the decisions I made or the policies I pursued? Absolutely not. If you ask me that under oath, I will say the same thing.”

Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, kicked off the afternoon hearing by expressing his dissatisfaction with medical marijuana program Director Lyndall Fraker’s testimony the week prior. 

“He told us he didn’t know or wasn’t involved with the widespread concern of how Wise Health Solutions was selected and the inconsistent scoring,” Taylor said of Fraker. “I find that disconcerting that director Fraker didn’t know the specifics of the program that he was in charge of.”

In Williams’ testimony later, he defended Fraker.

“Lyndall, to me, has incredible integrity. It saddens me that he’s been disparaged,” Williams said. “He put together a great team. … They’re what we want Missouri employees to be.”

Before the licenses were announced, Fraker anticipated legal action would be taken against the state during an SBJ CEO Roundtable on medical marijuana. 

“When you have 2,269 applicants and you’re going to issue 340 licenses, you’ve got a one-sixth chance of getting a license. We’re going to get sued,” he said in December 2019.

In an interview before the hearing, House Speaker Elijah Haahr said he’s unsure what the next step will be in the investigation.

“This is not something we’ll know or understand in one or two committee hearings,” Haahr said. “Once we get through that, we’ll take stock of where we’re at.”

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