One of the enduring mysteries over this past year in Athens has been why the medical marijuana dispensary – called Harvest – on West Union Street in Athens has yet to open for business despite a company spokesperson suggesting in late 2018 that the business would open as early as January 2019.
It turns out that the Ohio Board of Pharmacy has been investigating the company behind the dispensary, Harvest of Ohio LLC, on allegations of fraud and misrepresentation, according to documents obtained by the Cincinnati Enquirer as reported in a July 10 article, which means the business hasn't been granted its license to operate yet.
As it stands now, residents of Athens County with medical-marijuana cards must travel to out-of-county dispensaries. The closest is in Jackson, around a 35-40 minute drive and Grandview Heights (Columbus) around an hour and 20 minutes.
Some 20 dispensaries are currently active in Ohio according to the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control website, with many more having provisional licenses but awaiting their certificates of operation.
The Athens NEWS has requested the documents mentioned in the Enquirer article but an Ohio Board of Pharmacy spokesperson declined to provide them today (Thursday) due to Harvest of Ohio filing for a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the release of the documents in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
At the same time, however, the Board of Pharmacy’s focus in investigating Harvest of Ohio appears to be an open secret. In its reply opposing the TRO request, the pharmacy board noted that Harvest was issued three licenses pursuant to a provision in Ohio’s medical marijuana law requiring that at least 15 percent of all medical marijuana dispensary licenses be issued to companies majority-owned and operated by someone from one of several “economically disadvantaged” groups: African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, Native Americans or Asian people. That designation allows a lower-scoring company to potentially leapfrog over higher-scoring applicants who don’t have disadvantaged status.
“The (state Pharmacy) board later investigated Harvest related to its status as an economically disadvantaged group,” the filing reads. “Based upon Harvest’s operating agreement and additional information discovered by the board, Harvest was issued three notices alleging that it does not meet the criteria for licensure as an economically disadvantaged group.”
The allegations center around the Board of Pharmacy’s assertion that Ariane Kirkpatrick, who is listed on Harvest’s applications as the majority owner (at 51 percent) and CEO of the business, “does not have actual operational control, and therefore, Harvest does not meet the definition of an economically disadvantaged group,” the Board of Pharmacy’s brief reads. Kirkpatrick described herself as a black woman in court filings, and listed a Cleveland address as her residence.
Ben Kimbro, a spokesperson for Harvest, said that his business looks forward to "correcting the record" on the issue.
"The notices filed by regulatory bodies in Ohio contain certain inaccuracies and mischaracterizations regarding our ownership structure, operation and management of Harvest of Ohio, LLC.," Kimbro said. "We’re working closely with regulators in Ohio to ensure they better understand our structure and we are committed to operating transparently in every state in which we operate. We are proud to have Ariane Fitzpatrick as the majority interest owner and operator of Harvest of Ohio and we are excited for her to lead our efforts to bring premium cannabis products to Ohio patients."
According to records of a July 15 hearing in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, Kirkpatrick and an attorney for Harvest argued that the notices released from the Board of Pharmacy to the Cincinnati Enquirer alleging fraud by Harvest were released improperly because they contain “trade secrets” and other confidential information not allowed to be released under Ohio’s public-records law. Kirkpatrick information which has high "economic value” in the emerging medical marijuana market in Ohio and elsewhere. The Board of Pharmacy denied those allegations in its response.
“Harvest of Ohio was anxious to get its license, and if there were corporate changes that it could make to make the board under the board’s interpretation of being owned and controlled by an economically disadvantaged person, then Harvest of Ohio is prepared to do that, so we are continuing settlement negotiations,” Harvest attorney Helen Mac Murray said during the July 15 hearing.
She said those “negotiations” were interrupted when the Board of Pharmacy provided public records to the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month.
Kirkpatrick during that hearing said that Harvest is essentially ready to go with two of its dispensaries in Columbus and Athens, and is finishing construction on a Beavercreek location. Kirkpatrick said the business is just waiting on a certificate of operations from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, which likely won't be granted until these issues are sorted out.
“We’re almost open,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’ve completed the Columbus location and the Athens location. We’ve received inspections and we’re complying with the inspection report.”
A Franklin County Judge reportedly struck down the 15 percent minority ownership requirement for medical marijuana dispensary and cultivar licenses in a decision last November, but it’s not clear how that has affected the Board of Pharmacy’s investigation detailed above.