The Pennsylvania Department of Health has replaced its top regulator for the state's medical marijuana program.
The change comes at a key moment as the commonwealth prepares to award a second round of permits to prospective dispensary owners, grant permits to university health systems that want to conduct research into cannabis, grant permits for marijuana growers who want to partner with those health systems, and fend off persistent law suits challenging the awarding of those permits.
Larry Clark served for two years as the program's policy director and head of field operations. Clark, who holds a law degrees and a master degree in public health, was reassigned this week to "develop the larger regulatory agenda for the Department of Health," said a department spokeswoman.
Industry insiders described Clark "as the glue that holds the medical marijuana program together."
"It's been his steady hand that has protected the patients of Pennsylvania and allowed for the successful rollout of the program," said Michael Bronstein, founder of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, which represents marijuana growers and dispensaries across the nation. "He's one of the best regulators I've ever worked with and I've worked with regulators all over the country. He's had the toughest job in the world."
Sunny Podolak, an assistant director who has been with the program since its inception, has assumed Clark's duties, said April Hutcheson. "There are no implications to Clark leaving," she said. Clark's annual salary is about $121,000. Podolak was reportedly earning about $87,000, according to pennwatch.pa.gov.
Hutcheson said Secretary of Health Rachel Levine needed Clark "to move back into the executive office to focus on important regulations that are long overdue for revision."
Clark's reassignment has no connection to chronic problems with MJ Freeway, the $10.4 million regulatory software that forms the backbone of the program, Hutcheson said. The software is prone to regular crashes that have held up sales and forced some dispensaries to close temporarily while the system boots back up. MJ Freeway also has been hit by several illegal hacks of its database.
Clark, who was unavailable to comment, was beloved by growers and dispensary owners for his willingness to fix systemic problems at any time of the day or night.
Though the Pennsylvania program has experienced some hiccups, industry experts consider its launch to be largely a success. Eight of the state's 12 growers are shipping refined oils, tinctures, capsules and "dry leaf" (better known IRL as flower or bud). About 40,000 patients have been certified for the program and 750 physicians have been approved to write recommendations. Since sales began in February, there have been 150,000 "dispensing events" or individual sales to patients.