Controversy around Pennsylvania's medical marijuana permits

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Controversy surrounds Pa. medical marijuana permits. Wendy Saltzman reports during Action News at 530pm on June 30, 2017. (WPVI)

State regulators have announced the first round of 12 marijuana grow operations, and 27 entities that have been selected to operate dispensaries under Pennsylvania's medical marijuana law, a program expected to be up and running next year.

But that announcement left many applicants fuming, with some crying foul.

So we're investigating exactly how the state picked the winners and the losers.

One approved grower has ties to the governor, another one just north of the Philly area is affiliated with a company accused of illegally transporting cannabis across state lines.

Pennsylvania Cannabis Advocate Geoff Whaling, of Bunker Botanicals, is one of 177 applicants who paid $10,000 a piece - for an overall total of $1.77 million to the state - for a shot at earning a massive money-making marijuana grow license.

"It is probably a million dollars a month that we would be generating out of this facility," Whaling said.

Bunker Botanicals includes all-Pennsylvania engineers, investors, and board members, but failed to get the thumbs up to grow in their underground facility.

Former Flyers Forward Riley Cote is a board member.

"There's always concern for, I don't know if ethics is the right word, but, you know, some shady business going on," Cote said.

Companies like Bunker can appeal the decision amid concerns about how permits were doled out. It's big money, and some companies shelled out upwards of $60,000 for a piece of the marijuana pie.

The reason Pennsylvania is potentially such a gold mine for marijuana growers is the state has approved medicinal use for 17 qualifying disorders. That is significantly more than any other state.

But what's concerning, according to Attorney Joe Kelley, is how the applicants were scored, and whether the process was potentially tainted.

"I think there is a lot of concern out there that there is a lot of behind the scenes politicking with this stuff," he said.

For example: the Chairman of Berks County's Franklin Labs - which obtained one of the licenses - is Governor Tom Wolf's former Secretary of Policy and Planning, John Hanger.

Prime Wellness of Pennsylvania, another entity approved for a permit, lists Chase Lenfest, son of philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, as a principal and financial backer.

But most concerning to some is the issuance of a permit to Pennsylvania Medial Solutions of Scranton, which is affiliated with a Minnesota cannabis conglomerate. Two of their former top executives have been charged with smuggling half a million dollars' worth of cannabis oil across state lines.

So how were the winning growers chosen? The problem is, Kelly says, no one really knows.

"They put the cone of silence on the decision making process," he said.

John Collins, Director of the Office of Medical Marijuana at the Department of Health, said the secrecy was essential.

"Our regulations maintained in the anonymity of team members to avoid any interference with their work, or influence from outside parties," said Collins.

In spite of increasing public backlash, the Department of Health tells us, they defend their picks and what some are saying is a lack of transparency.

"It's important to note this has been an objective process," Collins said.

The Department of Health says the process was based on score cards which are now being criticized by some as arbitrary and inconsistent.

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healthAction News Investigationmarijuanamedical marijuanapennsylvania news
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