Lawmakers looking into the birth of Missouri's medical marijuana program are not happy with what they're finding.
As soon as they sat down for a third oversight hearing Wednesday, legislators let loose on officials overseeing marijuana business permits, accusing them of everything from simple incompetence to fostering a cartel.
Lyndall Fraker, the director of the state's medical marijuana program, later dismissed most of the criticism, saying many accusations coming out of the House committee are "just not true."
Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa, kicked off the hearing with Fraker.
Taylor said he'd been troubled last month to hear Fraker say he didn’t know about — and then failed to investigate — conflict-of-interest concerns surrounding the company that was hired to “blind score” permit applications for the state.
The cannabis community had accused a corporate parent of Nevada-based Wise Health Solutions of conducting "boot camp" training, in which it taught people how to write the applications Wise Health would later score, according to previous reporting. (Fraker's deputy said her division did look into the concerns and doesn't think they are true.)
Taylor also criticized what he saw as Fraker and his deputy walling themselves off from the decision-making process.
“Frankly, I find that just concerning that Director Fraker didn't know the specifics of the program that he in charge of,” Taylor said, “and whether it was ignorance or confusion or incompetence, Director Fraker clearly didn't have the experience needed in the position.”
Gov. Mike Parson appointed Fraker, a fellow Republican, to the job. Fraker has 17 years experience as a Walmart manager, two years as a county commissioner and eight years as a state representative.
Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City, took up the microphone after Taylor. He went after Parson himself for the fallout, which so far has led to hundreds of appeals from companies that didn't win permits and which now claim the way applications were scored was flawed.
"At the end of the day, the buck stops with the governor," Carpenter said. "I think he and his office owe us answers in terms of why this was rolled out this way."
He added that he thinks the state has "lost the faith of a lot of Missourians" who expected the permitting process to be "good and fair." He said he hopes the governor's team can fix it.
Rep. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, D-University City, suggested that may be a heavy lift.
In her opening statement, she said she worried about "an air" of corruption about the whole business. She alluded to rumors of potential conflicts of interest within the government itself as well as concerns that lobbyists and other questionable figures are inappropriately profiting from the state process.
"It very concerning to me that this process works the way that it does, and honestly, I'm going to tell you it looks like a drug cartel, no pun intended," she said.
She also repeated concerns she mentioned at a hearing last month about the number of permits going to people traditionally marginalized by the policing of marijuana.
"There are people both white and black who don't understand why we don't have minority participation in this," Chappelle-Nadal said.
It's not clear any of it made much of an impact on Fraker, the medical marijuana program director.
In a later interview, Fraker said much of the anger surrounding the licensing process was inevitable given that not everyone could win. (There were roughly 348 licenses granted, out of 2,200 applicants, according to previous reporting.)
"I think when we closed the application period, 85 of 100 people weren't going to get a license," Fraker said. "They knew that, everyone knew that, so, we expected there to be people not happy that they didn't get a license."
He also wasn't impressed by the committee's accusations.
"They seem to be going down the path that I knew somebody or somebody knew somebody and awarded licenses to somebody or whatever, and it's just not true," he said.
When a reporter asked if his division had made any mistakes at all, he said it hadn't.
After opening statements, the committee heard testimony from Karen Boeger, who leads the state Office of Administration's purchasing division, who talked about how Wise Health Solutions was hired.
Much of the questioning was technical, but concerns generally focused on whether anything out of the ordinary happened during the hiring process.
Dr. Randall Williams, who as the state's health department director serves as Fraker's boss, was set to testify later in the day.