Two Oklahoma lawyers have been charged with multiple counts of having their legal assistants lend their names to medical marijuana grow licenses, giving their out-of-state clients a way to get around residency requirements through a practice state officials called “ghost owners.”
Attorney General John O’Connor announced the charges Thursday, calling it an example of how serious the state is taking illegal grow operations that are misusing Oklahoma’s legal medical marijuana system.
“Over 400 marijuana grow (operations) in the state of Oklahoma listed the Jones-Brown law firm employees as the owners,” said O’Connor, referring to state law that requires marijuana grow operations to be owned by an Oklahoma resident.
Eric Brown and Logan Jones were each charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, falsifying records, and cultivation of a dangerous substance.
Brown’s attorney denied any wrongdoing and said the two were no longer partners.
Brown's “conduct and knowledge of what went on is inconsistent with the mental state or criminal intent required to violate the law,” said Ken Adair, who is representing Brown.
Jones did not respond to a message requesting comment.
Investigators with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics said they interviewed four employees of the Jones-Brown law firm who admitted to being used to apply for medical marijuana grow licenses with the state.
One legal assistant told investigators she was paid $3,000 for each license she put her name on, with at least $1,000 paid back to the law firm, and “was meeting with clients so frequently this was the only type of work she was doing," according to affidavits filed in Garvin County court.
Other 'ghost owner' operations being investigated
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics is investigating other possible “ghost owner” operations.
“It literally took us 14 months on this one case, there are some we have been working on even longer,” bureau Director Donnie Anderson said.
Anderson said the two lawyers who have been charged represented foreign individuals who were growing marijuana in Oklahoma and shipping it out of state.
The bureau said it was able to devote more investigators to illegal marijuana operations in recent years, which has led to other charges, including a statewide raid this year that led to multiple arrests and the seizure of 100,000 plants and 2,000 pounds of processed marijuana.
Anderson said the work of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics is critical to catching "ghost owners" because the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, the state agency that oversees licensing, is often unable to identify a fraudulent license application.
"OMMA has caught some criticism over this but this isn't OMMA's fault because when you inspect these everything (appears) in line," Anderson said about licenses that fraudulently use an Oklahoman's name.
In November, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, which is currently under the State Department of Health, will become a standalone agency, a move lawmakers believe will help it better enforce licensing laws.
"Making OMMA a stand-alone agency is necessary to deal with the complexity of regulation and compliance of the expanding medical marijuana industry," said House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, who co-authored the legislation making OMMA independent. "This will help us cut down on the black market that threatens the wellbeing of Oklahomans and properly regulate the legitimate businesses approved by voters."
Since voters approved medical marijuana in 2018, more than 400,000 patient and commercial licenses have been issued by the state.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma AG charges two lawyers in 'ghost owner' marijuana scheme