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With questions over Missouri's medical marijuana program unanswered, probe quietly ends

Jack Suntrup St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Columbia Daily Tribune

JEFFERSON CITY -- With less than six weeks until the Nov. 3 election, a special legislative committee investigating Gov. Mike Parson's handling of the state's medical marijuana program has apparently shelved its work.

Although the House Special Committee on Government Oversight has collected a trove of documents raising questions about the process for licensing medical marijuana businesses, the panel has not met since March and is unlikely to meet before a new General Assembly is sworn in early next year.

By then, medical marijuana products are expected to be on the market in Missouri, after voters legalized the sale in a 2018 change to the state's Constitution.

While one Republican member of the committee said it's not uncommon for lawmakers to ease off of committee work in the months leading up to an election, he also acknowledged that political factors could be playing a role.

For instance, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, was locked in a tight state Senate primary as the panel poked Gov. Mike Parson's administration early this year.

Ross lost his bid in August to a colleague who received financial support from Parson's point man on the medical marijuana program. Ross has not responded to multiple phone messages since June.

"I talked to Ross, and I said, 'Look, this is really important and you need to leave a legacy,'" said state Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, a member of the investigative committee.

Chappelle-Nadal said she has contacted House Speaker Elijah Haahr's office numerous times since March to demand more hearings into the scoring process used to determine which companies can grow, monitor and sell marijuana. She said the speaker's office, around May or June, began telling her that it was up to Ross to schedule a hearing.

Ross also is term limited and will not be chairman of the committee once a new Legislature is seated in January.

The vice chairman of the committee is Rep. Nick Schroer, a St. Charles County Republican, who is embroiled in his own legal fight over whether he moved out of his legislative district and is no longer eligible to serve in the chamber. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The apparent lack of further action by the panel follows Parson's dismissal of a report by Democrats in the House that said "credible allegations emerged" in May that his administration interfered with the investigation into the state's medical marijuana program.

The memo also raised questions about the application grading process, which has spawned hundreds of lawsuits costing $1.3 million in money that would have gone to services for veterans.

The 79-page report also blasts the Department of Health and Senior Service's handing of the legislative committee's information request, saying that in violation of the Sunshine Law, the department didn't detail which records it withheld, and didn't attempt to separate open portions of records from portions deemed closed.

Parson reacted harshly to the report, calling it politically biased.

One member of the panel acknowledged time is running out on the investigation.

"The 100th General Assembly is winding down," said Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel. "I've not had any conversations with the committee chairman or anybody in house leadership about the future of the committee."

But, Deaton added, "Traditionally this time of year there is not a lot of committee work that is being done. It's not just this committee."