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Messenger: What’s that burning in the oven? It’s Missouri’s medical marijuana license process.
Tony's Take

Messenger: What’s that burning in the oven? It’s Missouri’s medical marijuana license process.

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Medical Marijuana

(AP Photo/David Dermer)

Think of Missouri’s rollout of its medical marijuana licensing like a pot brownie.

The conflicts of interest and corruption aren’t accidental ingredients, they’re baked into the system.

That appears to be the conclusion after multiple open records requests made by the Missouri House committee that has been investigating the licensing rollout since late last year. The revelations are in a memo prepared by an attorney for the Democrats on the committee, that outlines a scenario in which the administration of Gov. Mike Parson intervened in the licensing process, potentially to benefit certain companies.

The Special Committee on Government Oversight, chaired by Rep. Robert Ross, R-Houston, found “credible allegations emerged concerning executive branch interference in” the state’s rollout of its medical marijuana program, according to the memo.

Parson, facing a tough election battle with Democrat Nicole Galloway, dismissed the contents of the memo as partisan. But that ignores the words and evidence that have come out of the Republican-led committee, the administration’s own actions, and allegations laid out in the numerous lawsuits filed by scorned license applicants who outline multiple problems with the scoring system that appears to have favored certain insiders.

It’s not like the government, or the designers of the program, even tried to hide what they were doing.

Go back to January 2019, when the state started accepting applications for various medical marijuana dispensary and growing operations. Both my colleague Jack Suntrup and I filed Sunshine Law requests seeking the names of the companies applying for such licenses. The state denied them, saying that the new law wouldn’t allow them to reveal even the names of the businesses seeking to invest in a new state-run market worth billions of dollars.

At the time, Jack Cardetti, spokesman for the statewide industry group Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association, agreed with the state’s restrictive interpretation. Cardetti had been a campaign consultant for the group that passed the measure. The lobbyist for MOCANN, Steve Tilley, was also a friend, adviser and donor to Parson.

The Post-Dispatch sued, and won, of course. Since that time, it’s been revealed that Cardetti is an investor in a group that won six licenses; as did numerous groups who hired Tilley as a lobbyist and several other board members or people affiliated with MOCANN. Several lawsuits filed by those companies that didn’t receive licenses, as well as the House investigation, focus on the so-called “blind scorer,” Wise Health Solutions, which appeared to have multiple connections to the Parson administration or marijuana insiders who won licenses, according to the memo from the Democratic attorney.

Again, none of this is by chance.

Go back to March 3. That’s the day that a Boonville, Missouri, company that won a dispensary license, Natural Healthcare of Missouri, surrendered its lucrative license with no explanation. The company was created, according to Secretary of State records, by Rolla attorney David Steelman, a longtime Republican insider who is a member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

The next day, March 4, Ross’ House committee held a hearing investigating the marijuana licensing process. In the audience was the head of the state’s Office of Administration, Sarah Steelman, whose agency was involved in the bidding process that awarded a contract to the blind scorer that is at the center of many of the questions about the licensing process. The Steelmans are married.

Perhaps all of the insider connections in the burgeoning medical marijuana industry in Missouri are happy little coincidences, just like the fact that some of those insiders knew to code their so-called “blind” applications with names that were easily identifiable, while some of those companies on the outside were unaware of such a possibility.

That’s why the House investigation, and the movement of various lawsuits through the legal system, are so important. The medical marijuana industry, and, likely, the recreational industry to follow, is here to stay in Missouri. Money that was supposed to go to veterans’ services is now being dried up in expensive legal actions defending a process that from the outside looks indefensible.

“The problem is not that scrutiny of these problems may also result in scrutiny of individuals in or who have beneficial relationships with the governor’s office,” reads the Democratic memo summarizing the state of the House’s investigation. “The problem is that there is evidence of problems with Missouri’s medical marijuana licensure process, but that the executive branch’s response is to go to increasingly inappropriate lengths to deny they exist and obstruct efforts to shine light on them.”

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