Medical marijuana entrepreneur eyes Martha’s Vineyard dispensary

Jordan Wallace of Oak Bluffs, hopes to secure one of the licenses to operate a medical marijuana dispensary on the Island. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

As state regulators work toward a May 1 deadline to create regulations to govern medical marijuana production and sale, at least one local entrepreneur is already making plans to open a dispensary on Martha’s Vineyard.

In a referendum question on last November’s ballot, Massachusetts voters approved legalization of marijuana for people with serious medical conditions. Statewide, 63 percent of voters approved the ballot question. On Martha’s Vineyard, 74 percent of voters approved. The law allows as many as five dispensaries on Martha’s Vineyard, and requires at least one.

Planning ahead

Jordan Wallace of Oak Bluffs hopes to secure one of the licenses to operate a medical marijuana dispensary on the Island. Mr. Wallace has taken several steps toward his goal.

He has formed a nonprofit company, as required by the new law. Because of his age, 19, Mr. Wallace cannot hold a license for a dispensary. He said he intends to operate the business, but someone else will hold the license, and he has not determined who that will be.

He has identified three different properties and says his group is prepared to sign a lease, but he said he wants to consult with town officials before making a decision about where to locate a dispensary.

“The two towns we’re focusing on are Oak Bluffs and Edgartown,” Mr. Wallace said. “That’s where the properties are available. Those towns are business friendly. I see those as the most central locations. Putting it in towns with strong Island police departments would be advantageous.”

Mr. Wallace, who is on a leave of absence from Boston University, says he does not use marijuana. He is the son of Oak Bluffs businessman Mark Wallace, who operates Jim’s Package Store, a gas station, and an auto rental business, in partnership with his brother Mike Wallace.

“I have a history of cancer in my family,” Jordan Wallace said. “I believe this is a medicine that is critical for people that have diseases like that. We have an obligation to help them. There is a tremendous need for it on the Island.”

Mr. Wallace is working to engage community leaders and organizations, including those who are opposed to medical marijuana. He said he has already met with the Dukes County Health Council’s Youth Task Force, police officers, hospice managers, doctors, and cancer patients. He has also attended seminars and met with lawyers, as he prepares to apply for a license.

Among his supporters are Ross and Kirsten Gannon, friends of Mr. Wallace’s and his family, who themselves have a relative who legally uses medical marijuana in Rhode Island.

Mr. Wallace is assembling a board of advisors including Island attorney Robyn Nash, and attorneys Julie Sullivan and John Richardson, both seasonal homeowners, according to Mr. Wallace.

Rules and regs

Under the law, the Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH) has until May 1 to develop rules to regulate medical marijuana.

“DPH will not issue any registration cards or allow any medical marijuana dispensaries to open until the regulations are in effect,” the agency said in a statement. “The department is partnering with a wide range of stakeholders in public safety, the medical community, and municipal governments to develop the regulations and will learn from other states’ experiences to put a system in place that is right for Massachusetts.”

The Massachusetts Municipal Association and several individual towns have asked DPH to delay implementation of the regulations.

“The timeframe is there, so you can’t completely ignore it,” said interim Public Health Commissioner Lauren Smith, according to the State House News Service. “But I think there’s a recognition within both the administration and the legislature that that’s a very aggressive timeline, and that to try to meet that timeline would be potentially contrary to the more important emphasis on trying to do it correctly, so there may be support possibly to adjust that timeline.” Ms. Smith said the aim would be “not to delay it forever but just to give us some time.”

Delays in implementation are common in states that have legalized medical marijuana, including neighboring Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, lawmakers authorized medical marijuana in 2006, but after six years of wrangling over regulations, no dispensaries were open at the end of 2012. A few retail dispensaries are expected to open this year.

Under the Rhode Island law, qualified patients and caregivers can cultivate their own marijuana plants.

Until DPH issues the regulations, Massachusetts law provides for qualifying patients to use or grow their own limited supply of marijuana with the written authorization of a doctor. As a practical matter, enforcement of medical marijuana laws will not be a priority, given the time and effort required to investigate and the maximum civil fine of $100, according to several Island police departments.

Growing business

Massachusetts is the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana, and that has spawned a booming industry. A simple search of the Internet turns up dozens of companies offering to provide legal services, set up a medical marijuana business, sell equipment and supplies to outfit a complete marijuana growing operation, provide food products that marijuana can be mixed into, create an advertising campaign, produce video tours of dispensaries, sell high-tech programs that allow growers to adjust hydroponic growing controls from smart phones, and sell a machine that identifies qualified patients by fingerprints, then dispenses the prescribed amount.

Vicente Sederberg, a national law firm specializing in legal services for medical marijuana businesses, has already established an office in Massachusetts. Attorney Shaleen Title said while there is no provision in the law for local preference, she expects the regulations issued by DPH to give an edge to people who are based in local communities.

“Most everyone that we have met is local, and has an interest in the state,” Ms. Title said. “A lot of our big clients in other states are waiting to see what happens. I think they know the licensing process will probably favor local companies.”

According to See Change Strategy, a consulting group that provides information about growth in new business markets, medical marijuana was a $1.7 billion business in 2011, and could reach $8.9 billion in five years. California accounts for $1.3 billion worth of wholesale and retail medical marijuana-related business, according to the consultant.