It won’t be immediate, but the end appears to be closer than the start in PennLive’s four-year quest to learn more about some of the firms providing medicinal forms of marijuana to Pennsylvanians.
The news outlet scored a big win for transparency in government Wednesday when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state Department of Health violated tenets of the state Open Records law by letting applicants for the state’s initial marijuana grower / processing facilities and dispensary licenses decide what information from their initial license applications should be redacted and withheld from the public.
Former PennLive reporter Wallace McKelvey noted the Swiss cheese nature of the applications that were eventually turned over obscured the most basic information about the applicant companies, in some cases even the identities of their principal owners.
The point of the case is to make clear that the state has to take ownership of managing the Right-to-Know Law. PennLive had also argued that the public could benefit from more transparency because with fuller disclosure unsuccessful applicants will have a better chance to understand where they fell short, therefore creating a more competitive market in the future.
“Medical marijuana is a new industry and economic engine in Pennsylvania — and recreational marijuana could follow,” Burke Noel, PennLive’s vice president of content, said after Wednesday’s decision came down. “We felt taxpayers should have a clear picture of how decisions were being made about which companies received valuable licenses to grow and distribute medical marijuana, and how those operations are being regulated. The court agreed. We’ll continue pushing for complete transparency.”
The decision also sets a bright-line standard for all other state agencies and local governments to follow when dealing with requests for information about future state licenses or contracts in that they can’t just cede the redaction process to third parties, but rather, must make affirmative decisions based on requests submitted by the applicants, attorney Joshua Bonn said.
The court’s reading of the law means the Department of Health is now obligated to provide PennLive copies of five of the six applications sought, Bonn said, after a new redaction by the state in compliance the law that allows withholding of such information as Social Security Numbers and personal telephone numbers of key firm leaders, proprietary information specific to their product and details of security at the facilities.
Those firms, which became the focus of the lawsuit because of the large amount of material they redacted, are:
- Cresco Yeltrah, which operates a dispensary in Butler County
- Cresco Yeltrah, a grower processor in Butler County
- KW Holdings, which operates a dispensary in Steelton
- Mission Pennsylvania II, which operates a dispensary in Lehigh County
- SMPB Retail LLC, which operates a dispensary in Reading
Bonn said the health department has told him they expect to complete their process within 30 days.
The court’s decision would also require the health department to undertake a similar review on any other requests for the information on the 457 applications received during the 2017 licensing process though, as McKelvey has noted in the past, some of the companies did seem to comply with the law in their self-edits.
The public nature of the sixth application sought by PennLive, a grower processor in Clinton County run by Terrapin Investment Fund 1, will be returned to lower courts for further review.