The Ohio Department of Commerce didn’t know it hired a consultant with a felony marijuana conviction to help score medical marijuana grow license applications but says the past offense didn’t undermine the agency’s process for awarding the highly sought-after licenses.
The department plans to go ahead and award 24 cultivator licenses despite calls from state officials to freeze the program until the scoring process can be examined after it was revealed a scoring consultant had a felony drug conviction on his record.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the department should hire a third party, independent person or firm to investigate allegations of errors or wrongdoing with the program. But some involved in the program worry a freeze or lengthy investigation would delay the program for ill Ohioans who could benefit from the drug.
Felony didn’t taint process, department says
The department barred anyone with a felony drug conviction from applying for a medical marijuana cultivator license and required background checks of everyone with at least 1 percent interest in a cultivation company.
Trevor Bozeman, owner of iCann Consulting, pleaded guilty in 2005 in Pennsylvania to felony charges of possessing or manufacturing marijuana with intent to sell, court records show. Bozeman paid all fines and court costs and satisfied the requirements of his three-year probation sentence.
Department spokeswoman Stephanie Gostomski said Wednesday that the department did not know about the past conviction. The department’s request for proposals to assist in scoring did not ask applicants to disclose criminal convictions nor indicate a potential consultant would be subject to a background check.
Bozeman, now 33, was one of more than 20 reviewers who participated in the scoring process, Gostomski said. Bozeman has a doctorate in chemistry from Arizona State University and experience advising Maine’s medical marijuana program, according to the application he submitted to the state.
Reviewers were grouped by area of expertise and only reviewed some parts of the application, which did not include names of the company’s owners or other identifiable information. Gostomski said application reviewers awarded a score as a group, and none had more influence than any of the others.
The agency plans to use the same reviewers, including Bozeman, to score applications for medical marijuana testing labs and product manufacturers.
“It’s imperative to the integrity of the program to maintain uniformity moving forward, utilizing the same processes and reviewers,” Gostomski said.
Calls for an investigation
Auditor Dave Yost has directed his staff to determine whether errors were made during the department’s hiring process and whether any such errors affected the application scoring process.
“This is an epic failure. I am outraged,” Yost, a Republican running for Ohio attorney general next year, said in a press release. “The only proper course of action is to freeze the process and independently review the evaluation and scoring from the ground up.”
Ohio Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and state Rep. Larry Householder, a Glenford Republican, also called on the department to stop issuing licenses. Taylor is running for governor next year and Householder plans to run for House speaker.
Yost’s Democratic opponent Steve Dettelbach also called for a thorough investigation. Dayton mayor and gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley said the department’s mistake is an example of a “Columbus double standard.”
One company that did not receive a license, CannAscend, has already said it plans to sue the state. CannAscend owner Jimmy Gould, one of the co-founders of Ohio’s failed 2015 marijuana legalization issue, said the consultant dust up and other irregularities are reason for an investigation into the process.
Gostomski said the department welcomes Yost, Taylor and others criticizing the process to contact program officials.
“We’ve publicized these details from the beginning, but we are glad to brief anyone who hasn’t paid attention to it and wants to learn more,” she said.
DeWine, a Republican also running for governor, said the commerce department should immediately hire an independent party to investigate alleged problems with the process. DeWine, whose office would represent the department in lawsuits over the licenses, said the independent investigator should have the authority to refer criminal activity for prosecution if found.
“There are rumors going around and people are making allegations,” DeWine said. “The credibility of the process is really in question and this can’t just go on and on.”
Possible delay for patients
Every state that has awarded a limited number of medical marijuana licenses through a competitive process has faced legal challenges. In some states, such as Maryland, the lawsuits delayed the time line to make marijuana products available to patients.
Ohio’s law allows people with one of 21 medical conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, to buy and use medical marijuana if recommended by a physician. The law, passed in May 2016, mandates the program be fully operational by Sept. 8, 2018.
Sen. Kenny Yuko, a Richmond Heights Democrat who helped craft the law, said the department of commerce oversight was concerning but not a reason to stop or stall the program.
“I don’t want to start over. We’ve waited too long. Two years to set up the program was too long from the start, in my opinion,” Yuko said.
Yuko said the department could issue more cultivation licenses to resolve complaints about the process.
Charles Bachtell, CEO of Illinois-based Cresco Labs, said the complaints being made about Ohio’s licensing process are par for the course in new medical marijuana states. Cresco Labs was awarded a large-scale grow license for a facility in Yellow Springs and has won licenses in Illinois, Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania.
Bachtell said he was impressed by Ohio’s program and license application scoring process, and further delay from lawsuits will only hurt patients.
“The way it was structured and handled and developed — this was a good process and we’re not going to let the sour grapes, unsuccessful applicants prevent us from moving forward with what we’ve set out to do,” Bachtell said.