In a rare move, a Missouri commission has granted an applicant a medical marijuana license after discovering irregularities in the way state regulators assess applications.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) decided not to appeal the decision, announcing Tuesday that it had reached an agreement with the dismissed plaintiff to end the litigation.
On December 28, the Missouri Administrative Hearing Board granted NWGMO LLC a license to operate a marijuana grow facility. The commission’s decision came after testimony and evidence described Missouri’s system for deciding who gets medical marijuana licenses as a rushed process informed by ‘intentionally vague guidance’ with no opportunity to review the work. for problems.
The commission’s decision, first reported by The Missouri Independent and the Midwest Newsroom, has sparked fresh criticism of how DHSS and a contractor it hired handled the scoring of thousands of claims. medical marijuana license.
Medical marijuana instantly became big business in Missouri after voters passed a constitutional amendment allowing it in 2018. Competition for licenses became fierce when the state capped the number of applications it would approve, and the NWGMO decision provides rare public insight into how the decision-making process unfolded.
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Hundreds of applicants have complained about the state evaluation process. There are more than 500 pending appeals of rejected licenses, many of which focus on work done by Wise Health Solutions, the DHSS company chosen to outsource application scoring. Wise Health Solutions is a joint venture of Nevada-based Veracious Compliance Solutions and Oaksterdam University, an unaccredited university that claims to be the first institution in the United States that teaches cannabis-based program.
So far, Wise Health Solutions has received over $2 million from the state. NGWMO argues that what Missouri got for that money was a rushed and uneven evaluation process.
DHSS rejected the NWGMO’s application in 2019 after Wise Health Solution’s assessment did not rate the company’s proposal high enough to receive one of the 60 grow licenses Missouri would allow. Much of the NGWMO’s appeal was based on the fact that it had submitted two licenses with identical answers to questions that still received different scores, even though Wise Health Solutions’ own training manual indicated that a such a case should never happen.
The NWGMO is affiliated with Nature’s Grace and Wellness, whose website says it has operated a medical marijuana business in Illinois since 2014. His appeal has garnered testimony from senior DHSS and Wise Health Solutions officials, as well as a former contractor involved in the ratings process.
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Christopher Jacobson was hired by Wise Health as a contractor to help assess applications, reviewing over 1,000 between October 2019 and January 2020.
He testified in an affidavit that his supervisor sometimes pressured him to meet deadlines and that although the process required that he be able to review his work for errors, this never happened.
Jacobson admits to making mistakes in reviewing NGWMO’s application when he scored the same answers differently. Asked about giving nearly identical answers a ’10’ on one app and a ‘seven’ on another, Jacobson said: “If I had been asked, after submitting/uploading the scores, to correct inconsistent scores on these answers myself, I would have given both respective answers a 10.”
Jacobson took no notes to explain the discrepancies in his scores. This aligns with the training manual created by Wise Health which explicitly discouraged proofreaders from taking notes, with the caveat, “notes are not necessary (and discouraged) unless you feel you need to ‘explain’ an outlier or redaction.”
The Administrative Hearing Panel’s decision noted that “none of the individuals scoring NGWMO culture applications took substantive notes regarding the details of their specific scoring criteria.”
the The training manual also states that it is “of the utmost importance” that applications are scored consistently and that multiple applications containing the same answer never receive a different score.
Oaksterdam’s Dale Sky Jones testified that Wise Health hadn’t guessed who was responsible for scoring the applications, saying there wasn’t much room to go back and check consistency because the company was under a “lack of time”.
When asked in a sworn deposition why a review of the scores hadn’t been done to increase the chances of a scorer detecting and correcting inconsistencies, Jones replied: “You should ask that to the State.”
Amy Moore, deputy director of the medical marijuana program, said the state leaves the scoring entirely to Wise Health. The state did not review Wise’s rating, Moore said, so guarantee the impartiality and confidentiality of its rating system.
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Moore argues that editing inconsistent scores alone “would have completely destroyed half the system if we had decided to apply our own judgment and whatever influences us.”
Instead, the Administrative Hearing Board concluded, the State “accepted Wise’s scoring as accurate and made no review of scores for discrepancies.”
During questioning, Jacobson could not articulate an objective metric he used to score applications, the Administrative Hearing Board determined.
“All I remember was a general,” Jacobson said. “Kind of a big picture of everything they were doing combined and, you know, with their – I think it was a matter of security or something.”
Jacobson failed to articulate rigid criteria for scoring, the commission said, “because he did not use one.”
“Not surprisingly, Jacobson could not articulate a rigid formula to assign to his ranking criteria,” the administrative hearing panel said in its decision. “And we suspect he never could, even while scoring. He applied his own subjective experience and did his best to be consistent while accomplishing the daunting task of scoring over 1,000 entries. with intentionally vague advice.
The state attempted to argue that Jacobson’s testimony was not credible. But the Administrative Hearing Board flatly rejected that claim, noting that state regulators chose Wise Health to do its scoring and admitted that Jacobson had the expertise to assess the applications.
“This is the system the department created,” the commission’s decision concluded, “and it cannot now say that Jacobson is not credible.”
Lisa Cox, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services, said she could not comment on the December 28 decision of the commission because the “the case is not final.
She said there were initially 857 appeals filed with the Administrative Hearing Board regarding denied medical marijuana licenses, of which 529 are still pending.
“The reduction of more than 300 is primarily due to the cases having been resolved in favor of the department, either by a favorable decision confirming the denial of licenses or by the dismissal of the petitioners,” she said.
The Administrative Hearing Board has previously canceled the DHSS and granted licenses only three times.
Last year, the commission granted Heya LLC two cultivation licenses for Kirksville and Excello due to scoring errors in the initial application process. The state appealed the decision, but ultimately settled and issued two licenses to Heya.
“In the five cases where the (Administrative Hearing Board) granted licenses, the department, through good faith discussions with these petitioners, has resolved the issues and will work with each of them to operationalize their facilities as soon as possible,” Cox said in an email. .
Wise Health Solutions has previously been reviewed for its work in Missouri. Other rejected applicants alleged that Wise Health Solutions partners consulted with applicants before DHSS hired the company to help regulate license applications.
One company, GMT Consulting, sued Wise Health Solutions, accusing it of negligence in its work with DHSS. the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last year that GMT Consulting won a $28 million arbitration award. GMT Consulting is now suing Wise Health Solutions’ insurer to pay the price.
In 2020, Missouri House Democrats’ attorney penned a memo accusing Wise Health Solutions of having conflicts of interest, but went further and alleged that DHSS and Gov. Mike Parson’s office had improperly influenced the medical marijuana program. Parson denied the allegations.
This story is co-published with KCUR 89.3 and the Midwest Newsrooma partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.