LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday made long-awaited appointments to a board that will control medical marijuana licenses in Michigan, including a former lobbyist with ties to the medical marijuana industry who was named chairman of the influential board.
Chosen for the board:
- Former Speaker of the House Rick Johnson, a LeRoy Republican who was the nominee from Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and who also was named chairman of the board;
- David LaMontaine, a Monroe resident and business agent and executive board member of the Police Officers’ Association of Michigan, who was nominated by Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt;
- And three members who were Snyder’s choices: Nichole Cover, a Mattawan pharmacist, health care supervisor for Walgreens and chairwoman of the Michigan Board of Pharmacy; Donald Bailey, a retired sergeant for the Michigan State Police from Traverse City, and Vivian Pickard of Bloomfield Hills, who is the president and CEO of the Pickard Group consulting firm and former president of the General Motors Foundation.
“This board will help provide the proper oversight of medical marijuana facilities to keep the public safe by ensuring proper health and safety standards are being met,” Snyder said in a statement.
The licensing board will be responsible for acting on recommendations from the state Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department on who will get the lucrative licenses to grow, transport, test and sell medical marijuana.
It’s an industry that’s expected to explode in coming years. Last year, the marijuana industry saw $6.8 billion in sales nationwide for both recreational and medicinal marijuana and is projected to grow to $21.6 billion by 2021, according to Arcview Market Research, a California-based company that tracks the marijuana industry.
In Michigan, medical marijuana revenues are estimated at more than $700 million. If full legalization of marijuana is approved by voters in the state, those revenues are expected to grow to well over $1 billion a year. An effort has begun to collect the necessary 252,523 petition signatures to put full legalization of marijuana for recreational use on the 2018 ballot.
The Free Press reported in March that the prospect of the booming medical marijuana business was causing a torrent of lobbying and cash directed at Lansing lawmakers as they crafted the bills that regulated and taxed the industry.
Johnson, a lobbyist since 2005, worked on the medical marijuana legislation though he said he had no paying client.
At the time of his nomination, Johnson was also negotiating the sale of his stake in the lobbying firm, Dodak Johnson & Associates, to a lobbyist for the medical marijuana industry, raising concerns about whether industry lobbyists could seek to curry favor with Johnson through the price paid for the stake in the firm.
Johnson told the Free Press on Friday that he sold his stake in the lobbying firm to his partner, former Speaker of the House Lew Dodak.
Under state law, active lobbyists are ineligible for appointment to the state’s medical marijuana licensing board. Johnson dropped his lobbyist registration on Nov. 30. Earlier this year, he confirmed he was in line to get an appointment to the medical marijuana licensing board.
“I would do that, because it’s nonpay,” and as someone who is retiring, “I’m in a position where I’m able to do it,” Johnson said.
But there’s a good reason for the prohibition on former lobbyists serving on the board, said state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who opposed Johnson’s appointment.
“I believe the board should be squeaky clean, it should have total appearance of being squeaky clean. I’m sure the honorable former Speaker will do his best,” Jones said Friday. “But I’m disappointed that a former lobbyist is on the board.”
A phone message left for Pickard was not immediately returned. Cover, LaMontaine and Bailey also could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.
Johnson said he helped put together the medical marijuana legislation, but didn’t get paid by any client for the free advice he gave, noting he wanted to assure easy and affordable access for patients, including relatives and friends who have benefited from the use of medical marijuana.
“People asked me: ‘What do you think about this?’” and he would tell them, Johnson said.
Johnson wasn’t specific about whom he advised, but said among them was Brian Pierce when he was still the chief of staff to state Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township. Kesto sponsored some of the medical marijuana legislation and shepherded it through the House of Representatives.
Johnson said he gave Pierce free advice on legislative matters and how to get bills through committee. Later, when Pierce decided to leave Kesto’s office and set up his own lobbying firm, Johnson said he told Pierce there was space he could rent in the Dodak Johnson suite in downtown Lansing.
Pierce left the Legislature in November 2015, less than two months after the medical marijuana bills cleared the House of Representatives, and registered as a lobbyist in December with only one client — the Michigan Responsibility Council, a medical marijuana trade association representing businesses who want to get involved as growers.
Both Johnson and Pierce acknowledged earlier this year that they were negotiating the sale of the Johnson’s firm to Pierce. That deal apparently changed with the sale to Dodak. When reached by phone Friday morning, Pierce said, “I’m not answering anything today.”
Asked why he didn’t proceed with the sale to Pierce, Johnson, who joined the lobbying firm with Dodak in 2005, said he “decided to exit the way I entered.”
Johnson denied any conflict of interest earlier this year, saying he has never done “anything for anybody” where a conflict existed. He said he wouldn’t have a vested interest if appointed to the licensing board, saying all he cares about is the patients.
“I didn’t get into this business to make a bazillion dollars,” said Johnson, adding that his main retirement plans are to return to his farm in rural LeRoy.
John Truscott of the Truscott Rossman consulting firm in Lansing said people involved in the industry will be watching the board’s licensing actions closely because it might give a glimpse into how licenses get handled if the legalization proposal is approved by voters.
“This appointment is only controversial if (Johnson) has connections with people involved in the business,” he said. “This licensing group can’t have any conflicts or connections at all. So people will be watching very closely.”
Link – Detriot Free Press