Massachusetts health officials have given the go-ahead to 20 groups looking to establish medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.
The 2012 voter-approved law allows for a maximum of 35 dispensaries statewide with at least one in each of the 14 counties. The Department of Public Health has granted 20 licenses for sites in ten counties, excluding Berkshire, Franklin, Dukes and Nantucket. Reviewing more than 100 applications, the DPH has invited eight additional groups to seek sites in those four counties. Nial DeMena is the director of operations for Manna Wellness Inc., a nonprofit that had sought a dispensary in Pittsfield. Its score of 120 out of 163 total points did not meet the state minimum of 137.
“We scored the highest in the county and yet somehow, somebody with no experience, no ties and no relationship to the Berkshires is somehow better suited to meet the needs of the community and the patients if they just move their entire business plan to a new place,” said DeMena.
Karen van Unen heads the state’s Medical Use of Marijuana program. She says the groups were scored by an independent company, ICF International. The scores were then given to the department’s selection committee which made recommendations based on production capacity, operational timetable, patient access and community support.
“Our commitment is to make sure that every patient, irrespective of where they are living, that they have access to the same high quality of care and we are just not prepared to settle for anything less,” said van Unen.
Van Unen says the eight groups invited back will go through an abbreviated application process to site a dispensary in the areas not currently granted a license. She says she hopes to make an announcement in June regarding the additional licenses.
“Based on the quality of their proposals and the content of their applications, I have no doubt that they’ll be able to connect with a new community,” said van Unen.
Dr. Ronald Dunlap is the president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. He says the society worked with the DPH to set up the program and understands the needs of patients who believe there are benefits to the drug. Dunlap says he is concerned about the inadequate scientific research done on marijuana and the control of the substance.
“When you start to have the public growing the substance, not knowing exactly what you have and what the strength is, you can see that the problem of potency in terms of one person’s batch being more potent than another could have a major effect on your function,” said Dunlap.
Dunlap is also concerned with patients being properly educated about the cognitive side effects of marijuana and the development of so-called “certification centers” where people bypass an ongoing doctor-patient relationship simply seeking marijuana.
“This is what’s happening in Maine and other states,” Dunlap said. “They try to define a rigorous process, but it gets circumvented and finally it becomes so poorly controlled that people throw up their hands and say ‘legalize it.’ That’s a completely different issue. I think there are people who are in favor of this because they need it for their medical problems and there are people who are in favor of it because they’re looking to promote an industry around marijuana.”
Van Unen says while the law allows for 35 dispensaries statewide, the DPH will be focusing on getting 24 to 26 dispensaries up and running by early June. From there, the department will determine if that is enough to serve patient demand. She says the next step is to set up the regulation programs that will monitor the certification and distribution of marijuana through the work of compliance officers and annual relicensing.
“We very much look forward to working very closely with the medical community, patients as well as the dispensary community and law enforcement,” said van Unen.