Changes at the Top: 2 State Medical Marijuana Chiefs Step Down, 1 Reassigned

Call it the MMJ management shuffle.

At least three government officials overseeing state medical marijuana programs have resigned or been reassigned over the past few weeks, highlighting the industry’s overall volatility.

The moves are unrelated, and the reasons behind them are different. But they are all controversial in one way or another.

Here’s a recap of what’s happened:

– In New Mexico, the state’s medical pot program chief – Dominick Zurlo – abruptly resigned last month without offering an official explanation, creating a fair share of speculation. A spokesman for the governor said Zurlo made the decision on his own and was not forced out. But pot supporters have been worried about the status of the state’s pot program ever since Gov. Susana Martinez was elected. Martinez indicated during her gubernatorial campaign that she would like to see the entire program abolished. More recently, however, the governor has backed away from that position and has been working to run the pot program more efficiently.

– In Maine, the head of the health department division that runs the state’s medical cannabis program was placed on administrative leave in October and then resigned several weeks later. State officials refused to comment in detail on the matter, saying only that the director – Catherine Cobb – was put on administrative leave as part of a management review. Cobb later said that she made the decision on her own but insinuated that it was tied to the fact she was put on administrative leave. Phyllis Powell, who was the assistant director of the division, is now acting director.

– In Colorado, the director of the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division – which spearheaded efforts to enact tight regulations on the MMJ industry – was reassigned last month to the Department of Revenue’s racing events section. The move came after the director, Dan Hartman, wrote a letter warning certain communities about the downsides of medical marijuana bans. Some officials criticized Hartman’s actions, saying it seemed as if he was campaigning against potential bans. Laura Harris, who was the director of tobacco and liquor enforcement, filled Hartman’s spot. The state didn’t attribute the management shuffle to Hartman’s letter, but many observers think the two are related.

The timing of these moves is interesting, given that they all came within two to three weeks of each other. Some of it likely is tied to the vast changes in the MMJ industry as of late. State officials are becoming increasingly confused about how to administer and run medical marijuana programs, as the federal government is sending mixed messages. This fall, the Obama administration launched a crackdown on pot operations in California, Washington and Montana, and it apparently has Colorado in the crosshairs now.

The feds have taken a different strategy in each state – and even on a city-by-city basis. In some cases, they are only going after marijuana dispensaries that are in clear violation of state laws, while in others they are focusing on centers for more ambiguous reasons.