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Official denies lawyer outings skewed Nevada pot licensing

June 21, 2019
In this July 30, 2018, photo, screens display different strains of marijuana at a dispensary in Las Vegas. Nevada's marijuana enforcement chief says mistakes may have been made by temporary workers evaluating applications for dispensary licenses, but the process was fair. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A top Nevada marijuana regulator denied in court that the state dispensary licensing process was tainted by meetings and meals he had with representatives of businesses that won coveted bids to open potentially lucrative retail pot stores.

Jorge Pupo, Department of Taxation deputy executive director, acknowledged Thursday that just weeks before license applications were evaluated he had lunches and dinners with dispensary owners and attorney Amanda Connor, representing at least three cannabis companies.

Connor declined on Friday to comment about Pupo’s testimony.

Under questioning by Ross Miller, attorney for a several losing bidders, Pupo told Clark County District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez he understood Connor represented the corporate owners of the existing Essence, The Source and Thrive stores, the Las Vegas Sun reported.

The three companies scored well among 462 applicants, and they were among 16 companies granted 61 new retail licenses last December.

Pupo testified that Connor never asked him about changing anything to do with the selection process.

“We were conducting business,” Pupo said. “Aside from the application process, the rest of the business doesn’t stop. You can’t stop talking to everyone.”

Lawyers for the state said Pupo couldn’t be influenced because applicant evaluations were done by contracted temporary workers. Pupo testified this week that he didn’t check score results.

Attorney Theodore Parker pressed Pupo about how it looked to have meetings with applicants who had a financial interest in licensing. Parker represents Nevada Wellness Center, a dispensary that was turned down for additional outlets.

Pupo said it was something he would think about. “I’ll do some self-analysis,” he said.

After a tenth day of hearings, Gonzalez said she’ll schedule several more days of testimony on a bid by dozens of losing bidders to freeze the state dispensary licensing process.

The plaintiffs contend applicant evaluations weren’t transparent and the state picked winners and losers. Some say the process was unconstitutional. Some seek a do-over. Some seek financial damages.

All sides expect Gonzalez’s ruling to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Statewide, 65 medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries reported more than $608 million in sales in 12 months ending in March.

The taxation department handled the process to nearly double the number of dispensaries in Nevada. Winning bidders have not yet opened new outlets.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak recently signed a law creating a regulatory Cannabis Compliance Board and an appointed oversight Cannabis Advisory Commission.

The board-and-commission structure is similar to the regulatory method the state uses for the casino industry. Sisolak’s appointees have not yet been named.

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Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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