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Pharmacy board fires director; marijuana working group meets

The Journal Record

July 25, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – Another week is here, and Oklahoma’s medical marijuana developments haven’t slowed their pace.

On Wednesday, two consequential meetings took place simultaneously. The Board of Pharmacy held an emergency meeting to consider demoting or ousting its director, Chelsea Church, amid investigations into bribery allegations. Although Gov. Mary Fallin has announced she has no intention of calling a special legislative session to update State Question 788 regulations, the Legislature organized a bicameral, bipartisan working group on the issue. It’s rare for lawmakers to meet in that manner, especially outside of the legislative session. Its first meeting was Wednesday.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has been busy since voters approved medical marijuana. The Oklahoma State Department of Health was charged with implementing regulations for the industry, and the agency published draft rules before the June 26 vote. The department’s general counsel, Julie Ezell, soon reported threats she had allegedly received from marijuana supporters to the OSBI. Agents found that Ezell had sent them to herself using her cellphone.

Now, the OSBI is also investigating other events that unfolded on Ezell’s phone. Records indicate that Church offered Ezell a position in her own agency at the Board of Pharmacy while requesting the controversial rule that requires pharmacists in marijuana dispensaries. Although Ezell advised against that requirement, the board did implement it. Those texts spurred allegations of bribery, which OSBI announced it was investigating.

On Wednesday, the Board of Pharmacy unanimously voted to oust Church because of those allegations. Members made no comments during the meeting, and they declined to comment on the decision after the meeting.

Another meeting started at the same time. House Floor Leader Jon Echols and state Sen. Greg McCortney are acting as the chairmen of the marijuana working group. They said during the inaugural meeting that the committee will meet weekly, each Wednesday, to hear stakeholders testify. They will do so until they have a new framework formulated.

During the first meeting, members hosted marijuana industry and policy advocates, allowing them to air their grievances about the rules that Board of Health officials placed on medical marijuana during its July 10 meeting and offering their perspective on how the regulatory framework should be amended. Several of the groups provided lawmakers with extensive policy pitches of their own.

Green the Vote was one of the groups that presented on Wednesday. It is now supporting the campaign to pass State Question 797, which would legalize recreational marijuana. However, it has supported medical marijuana specifically, as well, and did so in the months leading up to the State Question 788. Its president, Isaac Caviness, offered four criticisms of the rules as they stand.

When voters approved SQ 788, they gave the Oklahoma State Department of Health the authority to implement regulations on medical marijuana. The Board of Health oversees that agency, and in addition to approving the framework that agency employees drafted with 17 other agencies, board members added two rules of their own despite their own general counsel’s protest. Those included a requirement for pharmacists in all dispensaries and a ban on smokable marijuana. Since then, two groups of residents have sued the agency for those rules as well as several others in the framework.

The ban on smokable marijuana fell into the group of rules that Green the Vote protested. Caviness said tinctures, edibles and other forms of marijuana that are delivered via the digestive system can take an hour or longer to take effect. Smokable marijuana’s effects become present almost immediately. That pace would be vital for several conditions, Caviness said, giving examples such as a patient undergoing a panic attack stemming from a post-traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, he took issue with the requirement that female patients be subjected to pregnancy tests and barred from use if positive. Conditions such as epilepsy could create severe dangers for a baby in and of themselves, and Caviness said doctors should have the discretion in making that decision, not the rules.

Caviness argued that current rules supersede the board’s ability to regulate dispensary location. The state question bars dispensaries near schools. He argued that anything in excess of those kinds of prohibitions would be illegal.

“That goes far beyond what 788 called for,” he said. “You wouldn’t put these kinds of restrictions on a pharmacy or even a QuikTrip that sells recreational alcohol.”

Representatives from other organizations took the stand afterward. Those groups were Oklahomans for Health, which wrote State Question 788 and worked for years to get the issue on the ballot; New Health Solutions Oklahoma, which represents the medical marijuana industry; and Oklahomans for Cannabis, which advocates for medical marijuana patients.

Journal Record Legislative Report reporter Christopher Chesny contributed to this report.

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