As a legislative probe into the rollout of Missouri's medical marijuana program has expanded into Gov. Mike Parson's office, a Neosho-area lawmaker is working to remove a cap on the number of medical marijuana licenses set by the state.
Though he said he voted against Amendment 2 in 2018, Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, said that when voters approved the medical marijuana amendment, they didn't approve a maximum number. His amendment removes a limit placed by the Department of Health and Senior Services.
"When Amendment 2 was passed, there was language about a minimum of licenses to be issued," Baker said. "The department arbitrarily set a cap at that minimum. What (Baker's amendment) does is rescind a rule the department made and doesn't change the statute voters passed."
Removing that limit effectively negates the need for a scoring process the state used to grant licenses, Baker said. That scoring process led a House panel to launch an investigation into allegations of irregularities and alleged conflicts of interest.
Baker said the hearings revealed to him how the state department's intervention led to an unfair scoring process that led bigger, out-of-state companies to get preference over local applicants.
One such applicant, whose proposed operation is based in Sarcoxie, has filed lawsuits against the state for the rejection of his applications. Paul Callicoat's Sarcoxie Nursery Cultivation Center, as well as GVMS Inc. and Missouri Medical, are currently seeking a temporary restraining order against the department regarding licensing changes.
When the department modified rules to allow awardees to change locations or ownership structures on their applications, Baker said, it created an unfair environment in which businesses promising to open in geographically depressed areas shifted their plans, and bigger, nationwide marijuana monopolies got preference.
"If you have a ballot initiative, then the department arbitrarily writes rules that change the scope of what was passed, that to me is a problem," Baker said.
The Missouri House Special Committee on Government Oversight on Thursday sent a letter to the Department of Health and Senior Services seeking records of interactions with industry insiders and details on how key decisions were made. It is seeking records involving the governor’s deputy chief of staff, chief operating officer and a longtime adviser to the governor who has been under FBI scrutiny, The Kansas City Star reported.
The governor’s office and DHSS did not respond to requests for comment last week.
State Rep. Robert Ross, the committee's Republican chairman, wrote in the letter that the records request stemmed from “too many unanswered questions” by the department's officials during earlier public hearings.
The investigation, which had been paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic, resumed because of DHSS Director Randall Williams’ recent comments that its staff have continued its work and dispensaries are on track to open this summer.
Ross also provided the committee with a copy of a whistleblower complaint accusing the department of lying to legislators during public testimony. The unsigned letter, which Ross received in March from someone purporting to be a DHSS employee, also questions the qualifications and salaries of those running the medical marijuana program.
The Missouri Auditor’s Office said it has received two whistleblower complaints about the operations and the application process of the medical marijuana program. Steph Deidrick, spokeswoman for state Auditor Nicole Galloway, a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor, said the information was referred to law enforcement after review by its public corruption and fraud division.
The Star reported in March that the department was served with a federal grand jury subpoena last year seeking information about four medical marijuana applicants.
Baker's amendment may not have much chance of getting passed before the legislative session ends on Friday. The last week of a normal session is usually hectic and scrambled, and the current session paused by the coronavirus is even more so, Baker said.
The amendment is attached to Senate Bill 600, a bill dealing with public safety, and Senate Bill 580, a bill that changes provisions related to health care. Both are currently on hold, and both have a large number of amendments attached to them.
"It's hard to tell, at this point," Baker said. "Everything is even more complicated than it usually is ... We'll see what happens as we try to get some of these things across the finish line."
This report includes information from The Associated Press