In just 48 hours, Oklahoma’s State Department of Health has been hit with a recommendation to amend its controversial emergency rules for medical marijuana and a scandal over felony charges against its former general counsel. What exactly is going on in the Sooner State?
There’s a lot unpack here. Oklahoma’s Department of Health has been suffering from a string a scandals — unnecessary layoffs, numerous resignations and firings — since reports of financial mismanagement first broke in October of 2017, in addition to the displeasure over the emergency marijuana rules the agency pushed on July 10, 2018.
Let’s break down the past 48 hours from Wednesday, July 18, 2018.
Former General Counsel to Interim Commissioner: ‘I am so sorry.’
Julia Ezell, the department’s former general counsel, was charged Tuesday, July 17, 2018, with two felonies and one misdemeanor for allegedly sending threatening emails to herself.
Ezell reported to authorities menacing emails sent to her government-issued account, then lied to investigators about their origin, according to an affidavit from Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Nicholas Rizzi. In the first reported email, sent July 8, 2018, and titled “marijuana laws,” the writer — Ezell herself — claimed the government was taking away the public’s rights and warned her that, “We will watch you.”
Ezell reported the emails to the department’s internal investigators, which were forwarded to state investigators. On Friday, July 13, 2018, Ezell confessed to writing the threatening emails to herself and resigned from her position as the agency’s general counsel.
Following her resignation, in email to Interim Commissioner of Health Tom Bates, she wrote, “I am so sorry.”
Ezell was hired in November 2017 and helped draft the emergency rules for medical marijuana that were approved on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. According to The Associated Press, Ezell cautioned the board that prohibiting the sale of smokable marijuana and requiring a pharmacist at every dispensary were beyond the board’s legal authority. The board voted 5-4 to approve the ban on smokable, vapable, and edible cannabis products, and also voted 8-1 to require dispensaries to have a pharmacist on site, igniting anger from medical marijuana advocates.
In a statement, Ed Blau, Ezell’s attorney, said, “These charges do not reflect who she is as a person, nor do they reflect the type of advocate she has been for the people of the state of Oklahoma.”
Attorney General to Interim Commissioner: ‘The Board acted outside of its statutory authority….’
Matters didn’t get any easier for Bates, when news broke on Wednesday, July 18, 2018, that Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter sent recommendations to amend the recently approved emergency rules for medical cannabis. In the letter to Bates, Hunter charged that the health board went too far:
“I have since reviewed their legal analysis and come to the conclusion that the Board [of Health]acted outside of its statutory authority in promulgating several rules pursuant to [State Question] 788.”
Hunter took specific issue with the board for prohibiting the sale of edible, smokable and vapable cannabis products and the mandate requiring dispensaries to have an on site pharmacist — the same issues that Ezell allegedly cautioned the board to avoid.
Hunter’s letter took issue with the board’s definitions, too:
“Because the ordinary and usual meaning of the term ‘marijuana’ and the phrases ‘consume marijuana’ and ‘use marijuana’ encompasses smoking as well as consuming edible forms of marijuana, such consumption is legal and the Board does not have authority to, by its own invitation, prohibit it.”
Hunter also scoffed at requiring “a current licensed pharmacist … on-site at least 40 hours a week” at dispensaries, noting that, “Nothing in the text of SQ 788 expressly or impliedly authorizes this rule.”
Hunter also raised concerns about the board’s authority to implement restrictions on limited locations, co-locating with other businesses, and limiting the amount of THC in flower or concentrates.
Hunter concluded his letter by recommending the board “reconvene to reconsider the rules promulgated on July 10, 2018, in a manner consistent in this letter.”