DCHC hosts medical marijuana meeting Thursday

The Duke’s County Health Council (DCHC) hosted a marijuana tutorial this morning for town officials and some of the four applicants for medical marijuana dispensaries on Martha’s Vineyard — all of them anxious to learn the ropes of the new state effort to permit the distribution of medical marijuana.

The DCHC enlisted some high-profile talent in the way of Kevin Sabet, former senior advisor on drug control policy under President Barack Obama, as the speaker.

“We wanted to find someone who was in the trenches, who developed or has helped develop and advised with policy and procedure as it relates to town government,” David Caron, chairman of the DCHC, explained. Mr. Sabet heads a group that is hostile to the legalization of pot.

Held at the West Tisbury public safety building on State Road, the meeting, follows phase one of a competitive two-part application process conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH), in which four Island nonprofits are vying to become the first medical marijuana dispensaries in Dukes County. Thirty-seven community members, public officials, health practitioners, and health organizations make up the health council.

Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and director of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), Mr. Sabet focused on three main topics — how Island towns will decide whose jurisdiction medical marijuana regulations will fall under; how town zoning laws will affect the outcome of where medical marijuana is sold and distributed; and finally, how towns can deal with medical marijuana laws when they are in contrast to a federal law.

“I was invited to help the community deal with these complex issues,” Mr. Sabet said in a phone conversation with The Times. “So I think my message is that towns have a lot of options when it comes to something like this, and I’m going to go through some of those options with them.”

Described as part discussion, part debate, Mr. Caron hopes that the meeting will start a dialogue between selectmen and town officials.

“Once you’re educated, you’re in a better position to make decisions,” Mr. Caron said. “As we [DCHC] were going through this process, Massachusetts regulations weren’t even out yet. So I think the approach was probably a cautious one, but also one that we felt was necessary.”

In a telephone conversation with The Times on Wednesday, Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said he believed the meeting is better late than never.

“It seems like for whatever reason the discussion has waned on this issue,” Mr. Israel said. “Meanwhile the state has clarified its position and how things may or may not proceed, so I think it’s something we need to refocus on, both as a town and Island-wide.”

Looking ahead

First, Mr. Caron explained, Mr. Sabet planned to discuss how towns will decide who has jurisdiction over medical marijuana regulations. “Even those very basic facts are something that the selectmen are grappling with,” he said.

At their annual town meetings this past April, voters in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury acted differently on similar warrant articles aimed at restricting or delaying the implementation of medical marijuana. While Tisbury voters approved an article that would ban medical marijuana use, Edgartown voters approved a one-year moratorium on medical marijuana facilities. They are the only town to approve a moratorium so far.

Second, Mr. Sabet addressed how town zoning laws affect where medical marijuana is sold and distributed.

“From Kevin’s experience we [DCHC] want to find out how that happens,” Mr. Caron said.

Third is how cities and towns deal with medical marijuana laws when they conflict with federal law. “Because hospitals are reimbursed federally, they aren’t really in this discussion,” Mr. Caron said. “They (hospitals) can’t be, because marijuana is illegal federally.”

The state medical marijuana law does not immunize dispensaries from federal law. Nor does it obstruct enforcement of federal law. It is considered 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 or allowed medical use are breaking federal law.

Phase 2 – coming soon

Massachusetts voters approved the use of medical marijuana in a statewide ballot question in November.

On August 2, the DPH launched the first phase of what it described as a competitive two-part statewide application process that will pave 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.

David Kibbe, communication director for the DPH, said in an email this week that the list of applicants for registered marijuana dispensaries that are eligible to apply for the second and final phase will be announced on Monday. Information will be posted on www.mass.gov/medicalmarijuana.

According to the DPH, among the criteria reviewed in Phase 2 will be the “appropriateness of the site, geographical distribution of dispensaries, local support, and the applicant’s ability to meet the overall health needs of registered patients, while ensuring public safety.”

Frequently asked questions regarding the application process can be found on Comm-PASS, document number 401620 NOA 1, under the “Intent” tab, in the document titled “Questions and Answers.”