Responding to pressure from the news media and the public, the Hawaii Department of Health has agreed to release the names of the people who are on a review panel for applications to grow and sell medical marijuana.

The agency said in a statement that the selection committee members haven’t been chosen yet but that their names will be released “once the panel has been finalized.” The department did not say when that will occur.

Fifty-nine companies have applied for the eight licenses to cultivate and sell medical cannabis, which will be awarded April 15.

Marijuana dispensary hearing Dr. Virginia Pressler Director Dept of Health. 29 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Dr. Virginia Pressler, right, director of the Department of Health, at a medical marijuana dispensary hearing last December. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Civil Beat and other news media organizations had submitted public records requests seeking the names of members of the selection committee, but the agency and the governor’s office refused to release them.

Brian Black, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, questioned the legality of concealing the names in light of precedents set by the Office of Information Practices.

Jeffrey Portnoy, attorney for Oahu Publications, publisher of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, sent a letter to the Department of Health Thursday threatening to sue if the names weren’t revealed.

The state Department of Health published a change in policy on its website Friday. Here’s the full statement:

The department’s original intention was to release the names of the panel members after the dispensary licenses were awarded. The reason for this was to ensure that the integrity of the review process is preserved and to prevent the panel members from being subject to inappropriate outside pressures.In light of the extraordinary public interest in the names of the panel members, however, the department has decided that the names will be released prior to the issuance of the dispensary licenses.

All dispensary license applications were submitted by January 29, 2016. Currently, department staff are reviewing each application to verify that the application and supporting documentation is complete, that the information submitted is true and valid, and that it meets the requirements of section 329D-3, Hawaii Revised Statutes.

Once that step is complete, the applications that meet the 329D-3 requirements will proceed to the pool of applications that will receive further review and selection based on merit. The applicants that do not meet those requirements, and that therefore will not be reviewed for merit and selection, will be notified in writing.

The department will assemble the merit selection panel members after the verification of applications has been completed. Once the panel has been finalized, the names of the panel members will be released.

The policy change drew praise from Black, who said he had shared his concerns about the lack of transparency with the state attorney general’s office Thursday.

“I appreciate the department’s willingness to re-evaluate its decision in light of the public interest,” he said.

Portnoy was also pleased with the new policy, but said the fact that the Health Department hasn’t yet chosen the review panel members and didn’t disclose that earlier is “a little bit disturbing.”

State Sen. Josh Green, a physician from the Big Island who has been critical of the secrecy surrounding the selection process for medical marijuana licensees, said he’s glad that the administration changed its position.

“It is the right thing to do — to be totally transparent — and that will make for a better program,” he said.

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