State lawmakers are pushing forward with a plan to dramatically increase the number of licenses to grow, process and sell medical marijuana in Missouri, months before dispensaries around the state are expected to open their doors.
The move represents a rebuke to the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), which last year decided to issue the minimum of licenses required by the voter-approved constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana in Missouri, which totaled around 340.
The cap has resulted in more than 800 appeals by companies that were denied potentially lucrative licenses — many of whom would have qualified if the cap were not in place.
It is also part of a legislative investigation into allegations of misconduct in the medical marijuana program’s roll out.
State Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, attached an amendment to a pair of bills that would prohibit the department from limiting the number of licenses it issues. He called the roll out of the program a “disaster,” and said the cap violated free-market principles.
“When you set it up like (DHSS) has done, it sets it up for a monopoly which creates a lot of other problems,” Baker said.
His amendment won bipartisan support.
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said the cap was arbitrary and “violates the spirit of the constitution, which was supposed to be about patient access.”
“The state has decided to go in and limit the number of participants in this market,” Merideth said, “potentially favoring certain players over others, even though they may all be qualified to do business.”
Baker’s amendment also requires any limited liability company seeking a medical marijuana facility license to disclose its board members, managers, officer, and its operating agreement in corporate filings with the Secretary of State’s office.
Some Republicans argued lawmakers should allow DHSS to fully implement the program before intervening.
DHSS director Randall Williams told the House Special Committee on Government Oversight earlier this year that the decision to cap the number of licenses was made to help ensure medical marijuana doesn’t end up being diverted to the black market.
Both bills carrying the amendment need final approval by the Missouri House.
And because they are among a myriad of amendments to Senate bills, the Senate would need to agree with the changes or convene a conference committee to work out differences before the legislation could be sent to Gov. Mike Parson for his signature or veto.
The legislative session ends for the year at 6 p.m. Friday.
The debate over marijuana licenses comes less than a week after the House Special Committee on Government Oversight sent a letter to DHSS demanding it turn over records documenting interactions between state regulators and industry insiders.
The records request, signed by all six Republicans and three Democrats on the panel, was seen as an escalation of the months-long legislative inquiry because it expanded it for the first time to include key members of the governor’s inner circle.
In the background are persistent rumblings of an FBI investigation.
A federal grand jury issued a subpoena to DHSS late last year demanding all records pertaining to medical marijuana license applications of four individuals whose identity has been withheld at the request of the FBI.
The FBI has also interviewed numerous lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative staff, as well as other elected officials around the state, about the medical marijuana program. Most of those questions centered on Steve Tilley, a lobbyist and longtime friend and adviser to Parson.
Last week, the state auditor’s office confirmed to The Star that it had referred two whistle-blower complaints to law enforcement that were specific to the operations and the application process of the medical marijuana program.
The auditor’s office couldn’t provide any other details because of whistle-blower protection laws.