State DPH creates a path for medical marijuana dispensaries

State DPH creates a path for medical marijuana dispensaries

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On August 2, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) launched the first phase of what it described as a competitive two-part statewide application process that will open the way for nonprofit organizations to apply for licenses to open medical marijuana dispensaries.

The law allows for no more than 35 dispensaries across the Commonwealth, with at least one, but no more than five dispensaries per county. Given the expense to apply for a dispensary license and varying restrictions and regulations in the six Island towns, it is unclear what this means for the Vineyard and the seven towns of Dukes County, which includes Gosnold.

“The Department has created a solid regulatory framework for this new industry, and now we are ready to move forward with the competitive application process,” DPH commissioner Cheryl Bartlett said in a statement. “We are committed to a fully transparent process that respects patient needs, while ensuring safe communities.”

Massachusetts voters approved the use of medical marijuana in a statewide ballot referendum question in November 2012. The referendum passed with a 74-percent majority on Martha’s Vineyard.

After the state vote, the six Island towns took up the issue at annual spring town meetings. Voters in the several towns acted differently on similar warrant articles. One aimed at restricting or delaying implementation of the new law and another acted to ban medical marijuana use in any form in any place accessible to the public.

Only Edgartown voters approved in April a one-year moratorium on the establishment of medical marijuana treatment centers and commercial growing facilities.

Phases

The process of opening a marijuana dispensary begins with a background check. The organization must report any member who has been the subject of a felony drug conviction. Applicants must also prove financial wherewithal to the tune of $500,000.

Completed forms, along with a nonrefundable $1,500 application fee, must be hand-delivered to the DPH at its Boston headquarters by August 22. Applicants who meet the qualifications will then be eligible to move on to phase two, which is slated to begin in the fall.

DPH will post the list of applicants and proposed dispensary locations online, once the August 22 deadline has passed.

In the second phase, a selection committee of DPH officials will evaluate and score prospective applicants, based on the appropriateness of the dispensary site, local support, and the applicants’ ability to meet the overall health needs of registered patients. Applicants will also be required to pay a $30,000 non-refundable submission fee.

Once an applicant is approved for both phases, they will be charged an additional $50,000 annual fee for a certificate of registration as well as a $500 annual registration fee for each dispensary agent.

“The application and patient registration fees that DPH has put into place are in line with other states and will be affordable to patients,” Ms. Bartlett said. “At the same time, dispensaries will be required to pay their fair share to support this program, so we do not rely on taxpayer resources.”

DPH said the fees paid by applicants will go toward the state program’s operating needs that include hiring staff, training inspectors to monitor the industry and developing an online system for registering and auditing participant eligibility.

Locally grown

For a 20-year-old Oak Bluffs resident, Jordan Wallace, announcement of the application process has been a long time coming. Mr. Wallace formed the nonprofit Kingsbury Group Corporation earlier this year, in an effort to secure a medical marijuana licence.

“I became interested when I saw the support of the law by the people of Massachusetts, and specifically by my fellow Islanders,” Mr. Wallace wrote in an email to the Times. “I recognized, along with the people of Massachusetts and of 19 other states, a need currently unmet.”

Mr. Wallace said he had other, more personal motives as well. “I met with people suffering from debilitating illnesses who’ve explained to me that using this drug is their only way to experience relief from their symptoms. This is, in every form, a compassionate health care subject necessitating the highest degree of professionalism and integrity, and that’s how we deal with it,” Mr. Wallace wrote.

Mr. Wallace is the son of Oak Bluffs businessman Mark Wallace, who operates Jim’s Package Store, its associated gas station, and an auto rental business, in partnership with his brother Mike Wallace.

Jordan Wallace said he has been working to engage community leaders and organizations, including those who are opposed to medical marijuana. He has also met with Dukes County Health Council’s (DCHC) Youth Task Force, police officers, hospice managers, doctors, and cancer patients.

“The Island community voted in favor of the law by 74 percent,” Mr. Wallace wrote. “That speaks volumes. I appreciated the chance to address and protect the intent of the voters of the Island. It helped that we ran a transparent campaign and that we made ourselves available to any and all who wished to speak with us about this subject.”

Mr. Wallace is hopeful that the application process will lead to an on-Island dispensary in the near future.

“We believe the application process is necessary for the Commonwealth to do its due diligence,” Mr. Jordan wrote in an email to the Times. “We respect it, and we intend to adhere to it. We appreciate the openness of the DPH throughout this process. The application that you see is the result of a coordinated effort. We are putting together the best application that we are capable of, and we are cautiously optimistic of our chances.”

A growing history

State voters decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in 2008 and legalized its use for medical purposes in 2012. The drug is still outlawed by federal law, and it is still a class D controlled substance under state law, carrying a jail sentence of up to two years for someone convicted of distributing it.

The controversial law to legalize medical marijuana was passed by a 63 percent statewide majority vote in November, making Massachusetts the 18th state to legalize marijuana for medical conditions that include cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and HIV. Under the proposed regulations, approved patients will be allowed to receive up to 10 ounces as a 60-day supply of medical marijuana. Acutely ill patients could receive more with written permission from their doctors.

The state medical marijuana law does not provide immunity under federal law. Nor does it obstruct enforcement of federal law.

It is still a federal crime to possess marijuana. There is no exception for medical use, and federal authorities do not recognize any legitimate medical treatment. People who use medical marijuana in Massachusetts and other states that have legalized the drug or allowed medical use are breaking federal law.

According to a decision announced in March by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Massachusetts towns may adopt bylaws regulating the location of marijuana treatment centers within municipal borders and may enact temporary moratoriums on the development of such centers but are not permitted to ban them.