JEFFERSON CITY — A Cole County judge on Friday sided with the Post-Dispatch in a lawsuit challenging the state’s ability to keep secret the identities of those seeking to sell medical marijuana in Missouri.
Circuit Judge Daniel R. Green overruled the state’s motion to dismiss the Post-Dispatch’s lawsuit. He granted the newspaper’s motion for summary judgment to force the state to release the records.
“I think that tie goes to the runner in a Sunshine Law case,” Green said on Friday.
The state does not have to immediately produce the records because Green delayed the effective date of his order so the state could decide whether to appeal.
Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, which regulates medical marijuana, said Friday afternoon he had yet to meet with his legal team to decide the state’s next steps.
“It’s always our intent to comply with the law,” Williams said. “The judge ruled, and unless there’s some compelling reason from the attorney general’s office or our lawyers I would think we would provide that information as quickly as we can.”
“In its oral ruling, the Court acknowledged that the case was a close one,” said Lisa Cox, spokeswoman for DHSS. “The Department cannot comment on how it will proceed until a final written order is entered and reviewed.”
The Post-Dispatch sued the DHSS in January, accusing the state agency of violating the Sunshine Law by closing the applicant identifying information.
The department said the text of the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana precluded the state from releasing such information, but Joseph Martineau of Lewis Rice, an attorney for the Post-Dispatch, argued the state was relying on an “overly restrictive interpretation” of the amendment to close the records.
The Missouri attorney general’s office moved to dismiss the case, while the Post-Dispatch filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking release of the records.
The amendment voters approved in November says, in part, that the department “shall maintain the confidentiality of reports or other information obtained from an applicant or licensee containing any individualized data, information, or records related to the licensee or its operation … .”
“(T)he provision does not say that the Department ‘shall maintain the confidentiality of the applicant or licensee‘ as well as the reports or other information obtained from the applicant or licensee,” Martineau wrote in the Post-Dispatch’s lawsuit.
Martineau wrote the state’s interpretation “is flawed, unsupported by the language of the provision, contrary to the provision’s intent, and disregards the important public policy that the process of applying for and awarding licenses to manufacture, distribute and dispense marijuana should be open and transparent.”
State attorneys argued Green should apply a “traditional constitutional interpretation” to the constitutional clause that says the state should “maintain the confidentiality of … any information.”
“The Post-Dispatch’s position is untenable and cannot be allowed to prevail over the will of Missouri voters and the plain language of the Constitutional provision they adopted overwhelmingly,” the state said.
Missouri is required by law to approve at least 60 commercial growers, 86 facilities that manufacture marijuana-infused products and 192 dispensary licenses — 24 dispensaries for each of Missouri’s eight congressional districts.
As of late May, the state had collected $3.67 million in nonrefundable application fees from 510 pre-filed application forms, according to the state.
The DHSS has said it will use a blind scoring process to assess the applications.
Companies have also retained lobbyists as the application process intensifies.
For example, Steven Tilley, former Missouri House speaker and a well-known lobbyist, has signed on numerous cannabis industry clients. He also lobbies for the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association.
He was scheduled to co-host a fundraiser last month for Gov. Mike Parson, who oversees the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Because of the competition associated with the burgeoning industry, lawsuits could follow if the state rejects licenses.