It's one of the hottest hot-button issues in Utah: medical marijuana.
The state has been taking bids from people who want to be allowed to grow and sell pot. The Utah Department of Agriculture was told they could grant up to 10 licenses for companies in Utah to cultivate medical cannabis.
Who are the bidders? We don't get to know — at least not for a while.
As of last week, the bidding process is over. Nobody else can throw their name in for consideration, and nobody is allowed to change their bids. Still, state regulators are refusing to say who the bidders are until the contracts have been awarded.
“Confidentiality is vital during the selection process in fairness for all who apply,” wrote Agriculture spokesman Jack Wilbur.
When taking the bids, it makes sense that the process is secretive. It wouldn't be fair for one company to know what another company bid. The need for secrecy is also spelled out in Utah’s public record law, called GRAMA.
Pressed on why the state continues to refuse GRAMA requests asking for names now that the bidding process is closed, Wilber says, “during this evaluation phase, GRAMA officers are required to deny any information until awards are made and contracts are signed. All of this is because the State needs the opportunity to create, negotiate, and sign contracts with vendors as a normal course of business.”
First Amendment lawyer Jeff Hunt says that, under GRAMA, the state could release the bidder information right now if they wanted to.
And Hunt says they should.
“The public has a compelling interest in knowing who these bidders are and making sure that the bidding process is on the up and up,” he said.
The fact that the state is stonewalling risks putting a dark cloud over the already controversial subject, Hunt says.
"If you want to promote confidence in the bidding process, you want to keep it as open and transparent as possible," he said.
One thing the state would disclose is that there were 81 different bidders.
“It was the highest number of applications received for any one solicitation in our office,” Wilber said.
As part of the bidding process, bidders were told they "may be required to" provide samples for testing. That is problematic because it's against the law to grow marijuana in Utah. Providing a sample would prove the law had been broken.
Wilber says that the Agriculture Department “did not receive any samples as part of the solicitation.”