By Engelbertus Wendratama
In a “listening session” on medical marijuana held Feb. 16 at the Roxbury Community Center, David Kelly, a disabled patient and disability activist, asked Massachusetts health officials to leave the marijuana prescription up to the physicians.
“There are different strains of marijuana, each for a particular condition of the patient. Only the doctor knows this, so this should be a doctor-patient area, not the health officials,” Kelly said.
Under the medical marijuana law passed last November, it is the state’s Department of Public Health that is authorized to formulate the marijuana dispensation regulations. The law said the DPH rules should be ready before May.
Lauren Smith, interim DPH commissioner, acknowledged that “this is a broad issue”, and her department needs to hear from the public.
Eric McCoy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and gets marijuana in the black market, said that some patients should be given cultivation rights due to their financial hardship or physical incapacity.
Kelly, McCoy and other patients said they received big benefits from using cannabis, and the rules should not deny their rights to access it.
One major concern, however, is one that is shared by all states: the federal government classifies cannabis as an illegal Class I drug, the strictest classification on par with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
This legal contradiction started in 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana use. Now 18 states and the Dictrict of Columbia have made it legal, but the federal law remains the same.
In March 2011, the FBI raided 26 medical marijuana dispensaries in Montana. The FBI destroyed the plants and filed charges against the owners.
Chris William, one of the owners, in an interview with a documentary filmmaker Rebecca Cohen said, “We’re operating clearly under the state law, but the FBI told us that the gardens were illegal under federal law and had to be destroyed.”
Three months later, came a clarification regarding the raid. The US Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole wrote, “Distribution and sale of marijuana is a dangerous crime. ….medical marijuana patients will be free from prosecutions, but not the industrial growers.”
Jon Napoli, owner of Boston Gardener in Dudley Square, plans to apply for a dispensary license once the DPH rules are ready. He said, “The federal law obviously needs to change. There are several bills in Congress being considered right now.”
When marijuana becomes legal at the federal level, states will likely to adopt a for-profit model, like Colorado’s model, where marijuana is considered the same as tobacco and alcohol.
Cannabis tourism in Colorado only gives more pressure to the federal government to make marijuana legal, since it has potential to generate significant tax revenue for the state.
According to Marijuana Policy Project’s report, a national market for medical marijuana was worth $1.7 billion in 2011 and could reach $8.9 billion in 2016. In 2011, California and Colorado markets represented 92% of the wholesale and retail sales across the country. California is the largest market, while Colorado hosts the fastest growing and most business-friendly market.
Massachusetts is adopting a non-profit model for dispensaries. It sees the dispensary being a caregiver which works on slim margin and where fees are “reasonably” calculated to cover overhead costs and operating expenses.
Stephen Cottens, an attorney from Newton, Mass., said his firm is ready to give legal advice to any related party. He said, “Here in Massachusetts, we can have the most regulated marijuana industry in the country.”
Cottens was one of attorneys coming from both Massachusetts and other states. They all plan to advocate for the patients or entrepreneurs, and a number of them have set up patients or dispensaries coalitions.