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Controversy, legal threats mar Ohio’s medical pot launch

With the announcement last month that 12 sites — including one in Yellow Springs and another one in Springfield — would receive large-scale grower licenses, Ohio regulators took perhaps their biggest step yet in launching the state’s multi-billion medical marijuana industry.

But the fight over who wins and loses may be far from over. The selections were greeted with threats of lawsuits, calls to suspend the program and a debate over the criminal record of one of the scorers.

Add to that the prospect of a possible ballot issue on recreational pot just as Ohioans vote to elect a new governor next year, and 2018 may be the year of the marijuana leaf in Ohio.

At least some of the fallout over the Nov. 30 announcement was anticipated. With 109 applicants for large-scale cultivator licenses — potentially the most lucrative of the state marijuana licenses — there were eight losers for every winner.

Related: State auditor: Drug dealer scored applications for Ohio pot program

Chris Lindsey, spokesman for the national Marijuana Policy Project, said complaints, appeals and litigation are almost a given in states that have rolled out a legal marijuana program.

“The thing to consider is the amount of time and money invested in putting together these applications,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary effort.”

‘It’s a huge deal’

Some of that effort in Ohio has been called into question by politicians and losing bidders like Jimmy Gould, a Cincinnati businessman whose bid on the state’s scorecard came up short. The judging was based on criteria that included experience with medical marijuana cultivation, financial resources, location, a quality assurance plan and promised security measures.

Related: Some Ohio state officeholders admit to using marijuana

Gould and business partner Ian James have promised to file a lawsuit over what they allege was a flawed, unfair process. Parallel to that, they vow to put another proposed constitutional amendment before Ohio voters in November 2018 to fully legalize adult recreational use of marijuana.

Central to Gould and James’ objection over the judging was the inclusion of Trevor Bozeman’s Dublin, Ohio, company, ICann Consulting, as one of the three companies scoring the applications. The Ohio Department of Commerce says it didn’t know Bozeman was convicted of a drug-dealing charge when he was a 20-year-old college student in 2005.

Bozeman pleaded guilty, received three years probation and was released early after he made the dean’s list and was named an outstanding chemistry student. He went on to earn a doctorate degree in chemistry, according to his LinkedIn page.

Related: Ohio voters may decide marijuana legalization in 2018

Gould said he believes in second chances, but he maintains it’s not fair that license applicants had to submit to criminal background checks while those grading the applications did not.

“You should have had the people grading do the same thing,” he said. “Second chances should not be given to people that don’t follow the same regiment that we had to follow.”

Elected leaders — Auditor Dave Yost, Attorney General Mike DeWine, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and others — also expressed outrage that the state would hire a “drug dealer” and some of them called for a halt to the program.

“It’s a huge deal,” Gould said. “He had a background in trafficking marijuana. He was convicted of a felony. That’s a fact….Clearly, the commerce department was absolute derelict in not being able to find that out.”

Gould has also questioned the scoring itself, which disqualified 79 of the 109 applications, leaving just 30 applicants that survived through each step.

Related: Ohio announces first set of marijuana grower licenses

State defends process

The Ohio Department of Commerce vigorously defended the process used to pick winners and losers, saying applicants had to clear the initial requirements in five areas before moving on to the second level of scoring.

Identifying information was removed so scorers didn’t know the players behind each proposal, according to the department. And no one scorer passed judgment on all segments of an application.

A notice was mailed to each losing applicant describing how they may appeal the decisions through an administrative hearing.

“The Ohio Department of Commerce conducted a comprehensive, fair and impartial evaluation of all applications that were submitted for medical marijuana cultivator licenses,” the department says in a document provided in response to questions by this newspaper. “The process was designed to ensure that all applications were scored solely on merit.”

The department turned to outside experts to assist in the scoring, including a company in Arizona, one in Illinois and Bozeman’s company. ICann Consulting was hired on a $150,000 contract, but has so far been paid only about $10,000, according to the state.

Bozeman did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

Lindsey questioned whether Bozeman’s criminal history is relevant. “Does that lead us to think he’s just not going to be fair somehow in the scoring?” he asked. “How does that relate to the scoring?”

Of the fallout over Bozeman’s 12-year-old criminal conviction, Lindsey said, “It’s ironic that we’re carrying forward the baggage of a war on marijuana that we all agree needs to stop happening.”

Ironically, if Bozeman had applied for a state government job, Ohio’s new “ban the box” law signed by Gov. John Kasich in December 2016 would have prohibited the state from asking about his criminal history.

It was built into the medical marijuana law, however, that licensees submit to criminal background checks at their expense.

Related: Springfield, Yellow Springs to get large scale marijuana operations

Bitter fight

The fight over licenses and the threat of another ballot issue is just the latest chapter in the campaign to legalize weed in Ohio.

In November 2015, Ohio voters rejected a ballot issue calling for legalization of medical and recreational marijuana. But strong public support for medical marijuana as well as the threat of another ballot issue prompted lawmakers to craft a legal medical marijuana law in 2016.

In June 2016, Kasich signed a bill into law that authorizes use by patients with 21 conditions, including cancer or chronic pain, in the form of edibles, oils, patches and vaporizing. Patients and their caregivers will be allowed to possess up to a 90 day supply. Smoking or home growing it is barred.

Most of this year, regulators with the Medical Marijuana Control Program have been writing rules for growers, processors, testing labs, dispensaries, patients and caregivers as well as reviewing and scoring applications for licenses. It is expected to be fully operational by September 2018.

Not everyone is unhappy with the scores. One of the winners, Cresco Labs, broke ground Thursday on construction of a high-tech greenhouse growing operation in Yellow Springs, where media around the state watched as local officials enthusiastically embraced an operation the company says will be powered by 85 percent renewable energy.

“We are thrilled to be selected as a provider in this program and look forward to providing medical relief to patients across Ohio,” Charlie Bachtell, Cresco’s CEO, said in a statement after the winning scores were announced.

Although Cresco is based in Chicago, the front page of its website shows it knows something about the Buckeye state. Next to the words “Ohio, relief has arrived” someone wrote: crescOH-IO.

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