State regulators defend medical marijuana program despite controversy

Under fire by losers in the medical marijuana growing sweepstakes, the Ohio Department of Commerce spent nearly an hour Thursday issuing a full-throated defense for how it reviewed, scored and judged 109 applications for a dozen large-scale grower licenses.

“Was this process fair and thorough and impartial? Absolutely,” Commerce Director Jacqueline Williams told members of the Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee.

Committee member Marcie Seidel, director of the Drug Free Action Alliance, said it’s regretful that people who failed to win one of the 12 large-scale grower licenses are now “throwing hand grenades” at the process in the media. While no process is perfect, Seidel said “This is as close to perfect, I think , as it can come.”

Jimmy Gould and Ian James of CannAscend, which did not win a license, slammed the process, vowed to file a lawsuit and promised to put a full marijuana legalization ballot issue before voters in November 2018.

Related: Ohio voters may decided legal marijuana again in 2018

Related: Springfield, Yellow Springs to get marijuana growing operations

A principle complaint they have is that the state hired Trevor Bozeman of iCann Consulting to help score the applications.

In 2005, as a 20-year-old college student in Pennsylvania, Bozeman was busted in his dorm room with packaging material, scales, cash and a large baggie of marijuana. He pleaded guilty to a felony drug dealing charge, received three years probation and was released early after he made the deans list and was named an outstanding chemistry student. He went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry.

Williams said she is “well aware of the optics” but the state doesn’t routinely conduct background checks on vendors. She also noted that the same offense Bozeman was convicted of is no longer a felony in Pennsylvania.

Committee member John Lenhart, Shelby County sheriff, recommended that criminal background checks be conducted, given how many issues and money is involved in the medical marijuana program.

Justin Hunt of the Medical Marijuana Control Program detailed how the application process worked: three consultants and 22 state employees with specific expertise reviewed applications, applications were judged in two stages, no single scorer could exert oversized influence on the outcome, identifiable information was stripped from the applications to avoid bias, and applicants had to meet a 60 percent minimum score in operations, quality assurance, security, business and finances areas.

Two-thirds of the 109 applications were disqualified because of deficiencies such as failure to redact identifying information or not presenting sufficient security plans.

Related: Lawsuits likely when state picks pot sites

Meanwhile, one applicant, PharmaCann LLC, filed a lawsuit in Franklin County to halt the awarding of the large-scale grower licenses to two groups that scored lower than PharmaCann but were given awards under a set-aside for disadvantaged entities.

“Remedying the effects of past discrimination is a worthy goal of the Ohio legislature,” said Jeremy Unruh of PharmaCann in a written statement. “In this case, however, there simply is no strong basis in evidence that economic disparity exists in an industry that itself doesn’t yet exist in Ohio.”

Related: Major players get read to do business in Ohio medical marijuana market

Unruh said PharmaCann isn’t asking the court to stop licenses being awarded to the top 10 scorers or to order a re-scoring of applications.

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