By Dick Miller
WE.CONNECT.DOTS: Does potential corruption raise eyebrows anymore in Harrisburg? Secrecy promotes security? Cash will not attract organized crime?
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration — through Act 16 of 2016 — has started to implement regulations to allow medical marijuana to be grown and sold in Pennsylvania.
The first phase involves gathering applications from over 400 business entities and award licenses to 25 growers and 75 more that will operate dispensaries.
Wolf’s Department of Health is handing out these goodies in the most secretive manner possible. In his campaign for governor in 2014, Wolf promised that “transparency” would be the mode of the day.
Doesn’t apply here.
Neither media nor taxpayers could access applications prior to award of licenses. Some — but not all — applicants might have made their intentions known locally. Perhaps they had to initiate zoning changes or get options on properties.
DOH refused to divulge information until after the government had awarded licenses. This secret data involved locations of intended facilities, resumes of the people involved in companies making application, sources of funds, prior experience, or history.
Even who made the decisions remains a mystery. The Wolf administration claims the nameless, uncounted individuals serving on the selection committee are all regular DOH employees. (Since one of every 12 state employees now command a salary of $100,000 or more, assume these are intelligent public servants.)
Supposedly, this mysterious committee developed rules and methods to evaluate applications. Final scores determined winners. Requests by the media for details have been rebuffed. Some made requests through state right-to-know procedures. DOH sufficiently delayed this process until the department had already announced choices.
To both grown and dispense, the state is divided into six regions.
Two weeks ago, DOH awarded a dozen permits to companies that will operate growing facilities. Two grow permits were awarded in each region. Act 16 permits up to 25 such licenses to be granted and the remainder should be let next year. Each of the first 12 licensed companies must be growing marijuana by the end of 2017.
Some of the grow facilities could be indoor because security counts heavy in the evaluation of the applicant. Companies functioning in other states formed new and separate entities to do business in Pennsylvania.
Since Wolf went to extra lengths to use secrecy, we are to presume Pennsylvania’s investigative resources can work through to keep the bad guys out. DOH officials claim all the hush-hush keeps lobbyists and other shady interests from hustling those in decision-making roles.
Last week DOH handed out the first 27 permits for dispensaries. Each has a designated a primary location. However, not all those companies who won licenses made applications that include both of the permitted satellite storefronts within their region.
The committee likely awarded dispensary permits more on a population basis. For example, 10 of the 27 dispensary permits were granted for the southeast region. Only two each were awarded to the northwest and north central regions.
Act 16 allows 50 such dispensary outlets or a total of 150 sales locations throughout the state. Act 16 permits 25 grower licenses.
The all-cash business is lucrative. Transactions cannot be effected by checks, credit cards or any other electronic system because banks fear intervention by Federal authorities.
Marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the U.S. Government. New Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened to enforce Federal laws while the Justice Department under President Obama did not.
Each of the 400 applications submitted for growing and dispensing marijuana in Pennsylvania were accompanied by a $1,000 nonrefundable fee and an additional $10,000 which remains with DOH if the proposal is accepted.
Has DOS prepared for the coming local battles by parties afflicted with the “not-in-my-backyard” form of opposition? Some DOH decisions invite probing.
Philadelphia did not win a single grow license even though the daughter of a wealthy owner of a sports franchise proposed nursing plants in a huge abandoned industrial building.
Scandals in other states indicate the most perfect method of governing this all-cash business has yet to be established.
Is the Wolf Administration’s version of secrecy in government working here?
Once grow licenses were awarded, DOH released redacted copies of applications. The redactions appear intended to prevent release of proprietary information, such as growing or dispensing techniques. Blackouts were also approved for basic data, however, including names of some owners or directors.
Jim Martin, Erie Times-News reporter, writes the only dispensary franchise to be based in the state’s fourth largest city will be run by a Chicago based outfit. GTI Pennsylvania, LLC listed only a primary site.
Two other groups, with local ties, submitted applications for sales outlets in Erie. One has threatened to appeal the awards. Any court action should produce the identity of those making decisions and methodology.
Wallace McKelvey, an investigator for Harrisburg Patriot News, took about two days to learn and report “two former officials from (one grow license winner) face felony charges related to transfer of cannabis” in other states.
Bottom Line: You may wonder why the Republicans don’t protest the lack of transparency in this new Pennsylvania government function. The answer is obvious.
Republicans invented the modern practice of avoiding transparency.
In Washington, the GOP will determine how well or how long you live as they flail away at government regulated health care. Republican leadership meets behind closed doors.
Democrats are also kept in the dark, alongside rank-and-file GOP.
Repeat this scenario but applied to the 2017-18 state budget in Harrisburg, in every respect.
Both highly secretive events will spit out legislation of hundreds of pages. Leadership will demand final votes without providing time to read or evaluate the proposals.