In another apparent example of the lack of transparency in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana licensing process, a City&State PA right-to-know request has uncovered 67 letters of support for applicants that had previously been kept from public view. These include numerous testimonials from state, county and local government officials, politicians, business leaders and medical professionals on behalf of sometimes deep-pocketed medical marijuana applicants.
After the Department of Health opened the call for applications in February, concerns arose about applicants gaming the complex awarding process. To quell those fears, the department published all 457 submitted applications on its website – albeit sometimes in heavily redacted form. Many of those applications featured letters of support, some from prominent political figures like Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney or state Sen. Art Haywood, secured in a frenzied bid to lock down any advantage in a hyper-competitive field. But some of those support letters, addressed to Health Secretary Karen Murphy or Office of Medical Marijuana chief John J. Collins, were withheld from online publication for reasons that remain unclear.
The DOH says that documents released to City&State PA were not published earlier because they were sent separately from the applications themselves.
“The Department only posted online applications and attachments submitted by the applicant, some of which included letters of support, even though the application instructed applicants that such letters would not be considered in the scoring process,” said DOH spokesperson April Hutchenson.
It’s a problematic claim. Applicant Chris Visco said that one of the withheld letters, from Montgomery County chair Val Arkoosh, was, in fact, submitted along with her firm’s applications.
Her firm, TerraVida, in applying for a license to operate three dispensaries, obtained numerous letters from various state elected officials, local residents and even former Gov. Ed Rendell. She said she also included a letter of support from Arkoosh with her application.
“As a doctor, I know the dispensary will provide sought-after health alternatives to individuals in need. Chris and Adina have also demonstrated they are actively and positively involved in the community,” Arkoosh wrote, referring to Visco and TerraVida partner Adina Birnbaum, a political consultant listed as a Montgomery County Democratic committee member.
But when DOH posted the TerraVida application online, that letter was missing.
“We submitted everything,” Visco said, on Wednesday. “We were told that the letters were all segregated from the application. We were told the person who scored the application never saw them. But they didn't say what else they were doing with them. Then, we saw what you saw when it all went online.”
Separately, Arkoosh submitted a letter on behalf of another applicant, Holistic Farms. That letter was also withheld by the DOH.
Hutchenson couldn’t explain the discrepancy but emphasized that top officials like Murphy and Collins never glimpsed any letters of support.
“We didn’t censor or eliminate pages from the applications,” said Hutchenson. “And there was an intentional blackout period during the process, which is why those letters were sequestered.”
Hutchenson could not immediately describe exactly how that sequestration process worked.
Both dispensary applications were ultimately approved – although TerraVida is now under siege by some Philly pols who say they oppose the proposal.
To Bob Warner, spokesman for the good government group Common Cause, when the letters were submitted – and their weight in the selection process – is meaningless, particularly given the continued skepticism about transparency in the marijuana licensing process.
“It's disappointing that a reporter has to face delays, jump through bureaucratic hoops and pay copying fees to see material that should have been made available as soon as the reporter asked for it, especially on a subject of intense community interest like medical marijuana licenses,” Warner said. “It contributes to public distrust of government.”
The letters themselves offer a glimpse into applicants’ attempts to influence the department’s licensing process. Most are largely mundane, trumpeting the professionalism of applicants and the potential economic or health benefits of each proposal. State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a co-sponsor of medical marijuana legislation, supported three different companies – GenGrow LLC, Sirona and The Healing Center – using a form letter with only minor alterations.
One of those, The Healing Center, was eventually approved.
Similarly, state Sen. Jim Brewster and state Rep. Joe Markosek appear to have each copy-and-pasted an identical paragraph of support for The Healing Center.
“Their commitment to the Commonwealth’s patients has been evident to lawmakers...since they first came to Harrisburg three years ago to lend any assistance necessary, including acting as moral support for many of the mothers of sick children who stand to benefit from marijuana-based medicines,” both Brewster’s and Markosek’s letters read. The legislators did not respond to a Thursday afternoon request for comment.
In total, 28 state- and county-level elected officials wrote letters on behalf of applicants that were not listed on the DOH website.
About 39 other individuals also authored letters of support – including medical experts, ward leaders, university chancellors, a Florida-based counterterrorism expert, a Connecticut state senator, and Obermeyer chair and major political donor Thomas Leonard – whose firm worked for winning applicant Columbia Care. Almost a dozen officials from Corry wrote on behalf of Access Erie’s grower permit application for the small, economically depressed northwestern city – including the school superintendent, the local industrial development corporation, chamber of commerce and redevelopment authority.
While the letters may have ultimately carried little to no weight, hundreds of applicants seemed to think that they did – and it is noteworthy that about a third of the firms that received letters of support were eventually selected for a permit in a process that saw 93 percent of applicants rejected by the licensing panel.
“We received a lot of very high-quality applications,” Hutchenson said when asked about that fact. “At the end of the day, our focus is that we get medication to patients and the best possible operators...And that process is working.”
Click here to see a PDF of letters of support submitted by county officials
Click here to see a PDF of letters of support submitted by other individuals