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Regulating marijuana dispensation in Massachusetts

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.

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Lauren Smith (standing), interim commissioner of the DPH, led the second of three listening sessions on marijuana dispensation in Massachusetts.
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Chairperson of Substance Abuse Prevention Team in Weymouth, Dave Morgan, said that the DPH should make a set of strict regulations. He’s one of the opponents of the marijuana referendum back in November.
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David Kelly emphasized the importance of giving the prescription rights to the doctors because marijuana is a unique substance. “It’s different from alcohol, heroin and cocaine,” he said.
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Jon Napoli (right) and Robert Johnson (center) plan to open marijuana dispensaries in the state. Scott Murphy (left), an Iraq War veteran, asked the DPH to allow the use of marijuana for PTSD patients like him.
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Anne Buechs (left) and Tara Doran (middle) are from South Boston Action for Substance Abuse Prevention. They emphasized the importance of strict marijuana rules.
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Eric McCoy, suffering from multiple sclerosis, has been using cannabis for 17 years. “It gives me energy, ability to function,” he said.
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John Carmichael (speaking), Deputy Chief Police of Walpole Police Department, said, “We don’t necessarily agree with what happens, but we move along. And it will be naïve to think that there’s not gonna be a diversion in the implementation.”
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Rob Hunt is an attorney and the chairman of Coalition for Responsible Patient Care. Founded in October 2012, the members of CRPC are marijuana patients and entrepreneurs who want to open dispensaries in Massachusetts.
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Changes on the new Mass. marijuana law?

By Engelbertus Wendratama

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg is likely the most quoted state legislator on the medical marijuana issue. As one of the proponents of the Massachusetts medical marijuana initiative, the democratic senator said he believed that the new medical marijuana law is too loose in two aspects, and he’s trying to fix them.

First is the cultivation right granted to some patients, like disabled people, who don’t have access to a dispensary, which cultivates, processes and sells medical marijuana. “I think there’s no need for this, it opens the possibility of access to some marijuana for recreational use, which is not the purpose of the new law,” Rosenberg said.

His second concern is who will have the authority to decide the conditions which would qualify a person for access to the medical plant. According to the new law passed on Nov. 6, the individual doctors have this authority. But Rosenberg disagred with that. “I think the Department of Public Health should have the authority to make the determination, not individual doctors as to what conditions would be appropriate for access,” he said.

Under the ballot question, the  Department of Public Health is responsible for regulating medical marijuana in Massachusetts. “I’m waiting for the new Commissioner at the Department of Public Health to be named before following up,” he said.

Meredith Rosenthal, a member of the state public health council and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “The DPH will make a thorough study of the issue, look to other states as models, and receive input from interested parties before presenting a proposal to the Public Health Council. We have much to learn before we can decide the best path for regulation.”

They have 120 days to issue the specific regulations after the effective date of this law on Jan. 1, 2013.

In this study and talk between the Legislature, state officials and interested parties, there could be arguments from the organizations and people who are in favor and against the law. But they will not go back to discuss, for example, whether marijuana is useful or not, but in how the state regulates the medical use of the plant.

The spokeswoman of two organizations that are opposed to each other agree with Rosenberg. Jennifer Manley of the Committee for Compassionate Medicine, a leader of the coalition supporting the measure, said she is ready to work with him. Heidi Heilman of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance that opposed the measure said, “I agree with him. The law needs specific conditions for the qualifying patients, and only under those conditions, there’s no ‘other conditions.’”

In the meantime, Boston City Councilor Rob Consalvo is asking the City Council to order a hearing to address the location of medical marijuana dispensaries. In this hearing, the City Council will discuss specific rules regarding the dispensaries and their locations in the city’s neighborhoods with government bodies such as the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the state Department of Public Health, the Boston Public Health Commission, the Boston Police Department and the Department of Neighborhood Development.

Regarding the dispensaries and other issues, Mass. medical marijuana law is tighter than its counterpart in Colorado and California, two states that have the most marijuana dispensaries in the country.

State Comparison

Regulations Massachusetts Colorado California
Patient has a bona fide physician-patient relationship Required Required Not Required
Statewide patient registry system Required Required Not Required
Dispensaries: Oversight, registration and collection of fees Required Required Not Required
Dispensaries: Registration and background check for employees Required Not Required Not Required
Dispensaries: Jail and prison sentences for defrauding system Applied Not Applied Not Applied
Dispensaries: Maximum numbers in the state 35 No Limit (500 in Denver alone) No Limit (1,000 in LA alone)
Dispensaries: Maximum numbers per county 5 No Limit No Limit