BOSTON – A group of medical marijuana patients on Monday called it “scandalous” that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration will take more than two years to open any medical marijuana dispensaries.
“The lack of movement on implementing the law is becoming a serious public health issue, it’s a quality of life issue and at this point, it’s an issue about ineffective government and leadership,” said Matthew Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance. “We’re outraged, and we feel the process has now been subsumed by politics before patients, and it appears the governor wants to try to skip out of office without addressing medical marijuana.”
Allen said his group is “absolutely” looking at the possibility of legal action to force the administration to move forward. “Because of the frustration with the state of implementation at this point and all the delays, the Mass. Patient Advocacy Alliance is taking a look at the viability of litigation to resolve this issue,” Allen said.
Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz defended the length of the process. “I think for us, it’s really important that we get this right,” Polanowicz said. “There’s been other new businesses that have started up that have taken four years just to get to the licensing phase.”
Polanowicz said due to public safety concerns, the fact that medical marijuana companies are not affiliated with hospitals or established organizations, and mixed responses from municipalities, the verification and licensing process has taken longer than expected. But, he said, “The department is not letting up on the gas in terms of getting this program done.”
The licensing process seemed to be on track in January, when the state awarded provisional licenses to 20 medical marijuana dispensaries. But the media then found that the applicants had not been well-vetted, and problems with applicants began cropping up. Some applicants had overstated levels of local support, licensees were found to have a history of problems with facilities in other states, one director lied on his resume, and another company was found not to have complied with the state’s regulations governing nonprofits.
The state did another round of vetting and today, there are just nine dispensaries undergoing inspections, and another two whose applications are on hold. The state is vetting another five applications to build dispensaries in counties that do not already have one.
State law requires that every county have a dispensary, but so far there are only plans for dispensaries in seven of 14 counties.
Polanowicz said the first of the nine dispensaries could open this winter. More information about the “open county” applications will be available by the end of October.
Lisa Cole, of Leicester, visited the Statehouse with her daughter, Madison, who has a chronic seizure disorder. Madison, who is 5, sits in a stroller, since she cannot walk without falling. She wears a protective helmet and a walking harness to school. She is unable to talk. Cole said traditional drugs have had harmful side effects and limited effectiveness, while medical marijuana has proven effective in cases like Madison’s in other states. “What parents can idly sit by watching their child suffer every single day needlessly because the state they live in favors politics over patients?” Cole said.
Peter Hayashi, of Newton, is a former neuropsychologist who suffers from a neuropathic pain disorder that makes him extremely sensitive to light touches and temperature changes. The only medication he has found that works for him is marijuana, which he obtains on the black market. “I have had to rely on sketchy connections, black market, I don’t know where that money’s going, I don’t know what’s in it, I don’t have control over what it is,” Hayashi said.
Several patients talked about their need to use medical marijuana to deal with severe pain and chronic illness.
The Massachusetts law also includes a provision allowing caregivers to grow medical marijuana for patients, but the Department of Public Health is allowing caregivers to only serve a single patient. Patients say that has made the caregiver system less cost-effective and, as a result, it is more difficult for patients to find caregivers.
Polanowicz said of 24 states with medical marijuana, half allow a caregiver to provide marijuana for only one patient. He said that is considered “a gold standard” for public safety and for cities and towns.
The patients delivered a letter to Patrick asking him to license up to 50 dispensaries; to launch a registration system for patients and caregivers; to give final approvals to dispensaries; and to allow caregivers to grow marijuana for more than one patient.
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