OKLAHOMA CITY — A co-author of the state’s medical marijuana ballot measure said he plans to ask the newly elected governor and attorney general to order a grand jury investigation to examine efforts to modify the voter-approved law.
Chip Paul, who co-authored June’s ballot measure legalizing medical marijuana, said cannabis supporters will ask newly-elected Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Mike Hunter to call a grand jury to examine the behavior of state officials and other bureaucrats.
Paul said he suspects some held “backroom meetings,” trying to circumvent the wishes of citizens — even before voters legalized medical cannabis at the ballot box in June.
“I think we really need to get to the bottom of this, of what happened and the collusion,” he said. “(It’s) very clear that there was interaction about medical marijuana and altering the will of the people even before (the vote) even happened.”
Paul’s ballot measure clearly gave control of the burgeoning industry to the state Department of Health. However, emails obtained by CNHI Oklahoma through the state’s open records laws indicate jostling behind the scenes to strip control from the state agency at least six months ahead of the vote.
“As written, SQ788 puts the oversight of MJ under the Dept. of Health,” wrote Chelsea Church, the former executive director of the Oklahoma State Board of Pharmacy, in a Jan. 10 email to her entire governing board. “(Health department Commissioner Preston) Doerflinger has stated that there is no way they can handle that responsibility. I discussed this with Jimmy and he is going to set up a meeting between us and Doerflinger to discuss the BOP taking control.”
Church also wrote she’d like her board members to form an advisory marijuana committee, and she believed the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs might want to oversee cultivation aspects while her agency monitored the dispensaries.
“This will be a huge undertaking but I’m really excited to potentially have the opportunity to regulate it,” she wrote.
Some pharmacy board members then responded using their personal emails.
“The whole thing gives me heartburn, but I still think I would rather have the BOP regulate the process,” responded board member Jim Spoon.
The department of health remains the regulatory entity for medical marijuana.
Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University associate professor specializing in public records and meetings access, said he believes the January email exchange involving the board potentially violates the state’s Open Meeting Act because members were involved in discussions about policy outside the public eye.
He reviewed the January email exchange at the request of CNHI Oklahoma. He noted that while all board members did not apparently email responses, they still all participated in the email exchange.
“Whether they say anything or not, they’re still listening to the pros and cons, and that discussion is still occurring outside the public,” he said.
Senat said he’s also concerned that Pharmacy Board members used personal emails rather than their state-issued ones to communicate.
“It gives the suspicion that you’re hiding records, that you’re hiding the discussion from the public,” he said.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, which provides legal counsel to the Pharmacy Board, also was provided a copy of the email exchange.
“Based on these emails, there is no determination at this time that this is a violation,” said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Hunter. “It appears no action was taken, and our office is looking into it further. Our office has advised the board on how to handle similar circumstances in the future.”
He said this is also why Hunter’s office is committed to a partnership with the Oklahoma Press Association, traveling statewide to offer free open access seminars. That training also is offered to state agencies upon request.
Gerszewski said nobody has approached the office requesting a grand jury investigation. If advocates want one, they’d have to go through the proper process, which includes filing a citizen’s complaint.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater did not return a call seeking comment.
Stitt spokeswoman Donelle Harder said the governor-elect currently is focused on the transition and building his policy agenda for the 2019 legislative session.
“We are not commenting on policy matters yet, but we will look into this group’s (grand jury) request once it has been submitted,” she said.
Jed Green, political director of the medical marijuana trade group New Health Solutions Oklahoma, said the cannabis industry continues to hold “very legitimate concerns” about how the state’s bureaucracy is handling the regulation and implementation.
“The default setting after what we have seen this year is suspicion,” he said.
He said the industry has worked hand-in-hand with those trying to implement medical marijuana in a responsible way, but given what they’ve seen and continue to see, they’re continuing to watch vigilantly.
Green said behind-the-scenes maneuvering still is suspected.
“Given the track record of the various individuals, agency heads, board members involved, we fully expect that this is not being done in a a transparent manner,” Green said.
However, he said the Legislature’s medical marijuana joint working group hearings are a recent example of good, transparent government, and the industry looks forward to working with lawmakers.
Still, his group also hasn’t ruled out a grand jury probe.
“If we are unable to get real answers and real accountability out of our bureaucrats, a grand jury investigation called either by the attorney general, a local district attorney or even a petition of the people may be the only way,” Green said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.