Cannabis chaos: Incompetence, legal battles stall Alabama medical aid
The Medical Cannabis Act is not just a bureaucratic blunder, it’s a tragedy for those the act intended to help.
Alabama’s foray into medical cannabis has morphed into an epic of mismanagement and legal turmoil. The saga of the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission is riddled with legal battles, stirred by a flawed licensing process that spotlights the commission’s questionable competence and integrity.
This scenario raises the inevitable question: how did those lacking expertise in medical cannabis get to draft rules that hold such significant sway?
At a Cumberland Law School conference on Sept. 8, 2023, AMCC’s outside counsel, William Webster, admitted the staff’s lack of expertise in medical cannabis regulation: “Nobody in Alabama really had expertise in developing medical cannabis,” he said, alarming given their role in crafting the 48-page application scoring instructions.
Webster, a deacon and Bible class teacher with a practice in insurance defense, confessed his inexperience with cannabis: “I had no experience in medical marijuana and had never seen anyone smoking one.” This highlights a disconnect between the regulators and the industry.
Other staff members, including Daniel Autrey, assistant director, Brittany Peters, and Justin Aday, general counsel, also lack the necessary experience. Alabama spent about $1 million on Webster’s firm for legal counsel. The overarching question is why, or how, the commission staff drafted the highly detailed evaluation scoring instructions when, by Webster’s own admission, there was no one on the commission, or indeed in the state of Alabama, who possessed the expertise necessary to evaluate cannabis license applications.
In mid-January 2022, Webster said that he and a contingent of Alabama officials traveled to Florida on a fact-finding mission. Why is unclear, since Florida had botched its efforts in enacting medical cannabis that had cost the Sunshine State $60 million in litigation and took nearly a decade to unravel its early mistakes.
A text message from Jan. 19, 2022, reviewed by APR, reveals that the Alabama delegation to Florida included key figures from the Department of Agriculture and AMCC, along with Webster. The Florida team they met included Chris Ferguson, director of medical marijuana use at the Florida Department of Health, among others. Within a short period after, the AMCC released the scoring instructions. Ferguson was hired by Verano, one of the leading cannabis suppliers in the United States. Notably, Verano ranked first in the initial round of AMCC’s medical cannabis license evaluations.
In fact, Ferguson was in attendance at the June 10 AMCC hearing, where AMCC awarded Verano its integrator’s license, and at the Aug. 12 meeting. On both occasions, he was seen visiting with AMCC staff. A person close to AMCC suggests that the staff’s friendliness toward Ferguson stemmed from his assistance in drafting the AMCC rules for evaluating cannabis licenses. If true, this revelation opens an entirely new line of questioning.
On Oct. 13, 2022, AMCC Chair Dr. Steven Stokes proposed partnering with the University of South Alabama for evaluation, a motion that was approved. During his CLE presentation, Webster claimed that the purpose of hiring South Alabama was to allow the university to assemble a team of experts and academics to provide expertise in evaluating the applications. But the scoring instructions were released on Oct. 24, before South Alabama was even engaged. Again, the question is clear: If the commission lacked the expertise to evaluate the medical cannabis license applications, and South Alabama was engaged to help assemble the requisite expertise, why did the commission release the scoring guide before South Alabama was engaged?
This question is amplified by evidence that, despite claims that the scoring process was managed by South Alabama, the commission’s staff actually controlled the hiring and assignment of scorers. While the university was tasked with hiring evaluators, AMCC staff retained approval power. Peters confirmed via email that final evaluator decisions were made by AMCC, not the university. The university itself confirmed that, while South Alabama vetted the scorers, the AMCC had final authority not only for hiring them but also for deciding which applications they should be assigned to grade.
The scoring scheme had glaring issues, notably not assessing readiness for cultivation within 60 days.
At a hearing, AMCC Counsel Mark Wilkerson claimed the scoring system’s flaws were inconsequential: “If there are problems with the scoring, it doesn’t matter,” Wilkerson said. “If the scoring’s wrong, it doesn’t matter. If the scoring’s bad, it doesn’t matter. Because the Commission can take into account whatever weight they want to put onto the ‘scoring.'”
If scoring doesn’t matter, why keep it?
AMCC admitted significant flaws in its original scoring but plans to use it in re-evaluating applicants. The Commission twice awarded licenses, only to declare a do-over after legal challenges highlighted major problems.
At another hearing, Judge Anderson, near the end of the proceedings, weighed in on the spectacle, telling the attorneys gathered that it was his understanding that Mississippi was six months behind Alabama in passing a medical cannabis law and is on the verge of starting to fill prescriptions.
“We can’t even say, ‘Thank God for Mississippi,’ in this case,” Anderson said with a smile.
In a series of significant developments spanning from January 2022 to the summer of 2023, several key events unfolded, influencing the outcome of the AMCC scoring process.
The timeline began in January 2022, when Webster and a delegation from Alabama traveled to Florida for a crucial meeting with Chris Ferguson. This encounter marked the beginning of a series of events that would significantly impact the AMCC’s future operations.
Between January and October 2022, Chris Ferguson was reportedly involved in assisting with the drafting of the AMCC rules. Although the specifics of this involvement remain unclear, Ferguson’s input during this period is believed to have played a pivotal role in shaping the regulatory framework of the AMCC.
In October 2022, the AMCC staff released the scoring instructions, a key document that outlined the criteria and methodology for evaluating participants. This release marked a critical step in the AMCC’s operational timeline, setting the stage for the subsequent evaluation process.
On Nov. 1, 2022, the AMCC made a strategic decision by hiring South Alabama. The details surrounding this hire and its implications for the AMCC’s operations have not been fully disclosed.
In late 2022, specifically between November and December, Chris Ferguson started working for Verano. This transition was notable, given Ferguson’s earlier involvement as director of medical marijuana use at the Florida Department of Health and allegedly helping to draft the AMCC rules.
The culmination of these events was observed in the summer of 2023 when Verano achieved the top score in the AMCC scoring process.
Taken together, a pattern appears to emerge, one that raises serious questions and deepens the suspect complexities hidden behind a bureaucratic process of incompetence and shadows.
The Medical Cannabis Act passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey is not just a tangled mess or bureaucratic blunder; it’s a tragedy for those the Medical Cannabis Act intended to help — real people with real problems, now trapped in a web of incompetence and arrogance.
It’s perhaps high time Gov. Kay Ivey intervenes to restore order in the AMCC, lest this chaos spiral further out of control.