In what advocates are calling a "wrecking ball swung through the entire medical pot community at once," the state's health department will only licence 11 of 35 voter-approved medical marijuana dispensaries, and are prohibiting caregivers from providing medial marijuana to more than one patient.
BOSTON, MA — The Massachusetts medical marijuana community is in an uproar after state officials announced Friday that only 11 medical marijuana dispensaries would be licensed out of a possible 35 state wide, and none would be in Boston.
Meanwhile, in what advocates are calling a “wrecking ball swung through the entire medical pot community at once,” the state’s health department began cracking down on medical marijuana caregivers who have been filling the needs of patients while officials continue to delay implementation of the medical marijuana law voters approved in 2012.
When Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved Question 3in 2012 with over 63% of the vote state wide (not to mention majority approval in 349 of the state’s 351 cities and towns), they did so with the understanding that up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries would be allowed to open statewide.
If dispensaries were not open within 180 days of the law taking effect — which it did on January 1, 2013 — then a hardship clause would allow medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to cultivate medical marijuana until dispensaries open.
It has now been 543 days since Massachusetts officially became the 18th medical marijuana state, but relief to thousands of medical marijuana patients in the Bay State is still far away — if ever at all. And with recent developments this week, patients’ current access to medical marijuana has become all but non-existent.
The authors of Question 3 created a realistic time frame for the state to implement the medical marijuana law. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) was given 120 days from the enacting of the law to create the rules and regulations for the state-supervised medical marijuana program. The DPH then had until January 2014 to approve the applications and issue registrations to the dispensaries, and then another 90 days to licence and approve the dispensaries to open.
That deadline has come and gone, and the first dispensaries are still months away. State officials said Friday that the first dispensaries could open as early as November, but most will likely not open until February 2015. Officials also announced Friday that only 11 of the 20 dispensaries previously approved would be licensed, leaving several of the state’s largest cities — including Boston, Cambridge, Springfield and Worcester – without a dispensary.
The eleven dispensaries that have advanced to the “Inspection Phase” of the selection process would be located in Ayer, Brockton, Brookline, Dennis, Haverhill, Lowell, Newton, Northampton, Milford, Quincy and Salem.
These 11 dispensaries will be given provisional certificates allowing them to set up operations and undergo inspections, Karen van Unen, executive director of the state’s medical marijuana program, said Friday.
Because of some anticipated bureaucracy surrounding the implementation of the medical marijuana program in Massachusetts, the authors of Question 3 wrote safeguards into the legislation approved by voters. Knowing that it would take time for dispensaries to be licensed and open, the authors of the ballot measure incorporated cultivation by patients and caregivers into the law, but only until such time as dispensaries were open or if the patients live more than 30 miles from a dispensary once they are operational.
However, in the spring of 2013 the DPH released regulations for the medical marijuana program, which included a provision that caregivers could “only supply marijuana to one patient at a time.” Patients, advocates and caregivers alike called the single-patient restriction “unreasonable and unworkable,” while state officials and police admit that the regulation is vague and open to interpretation.
Since then the DPH has looked the other way while over a dozen caregivers in the state filled the void left by bureaucratic incompetence and supplied medical marijuana to thousands of patients seeking relief. Caregivers say they only ever provide medical marijuana to “one patient at a time” and are following sate law and health regulations, noting that they submit paperwork to the state for every patient they supply with medicine.
All that changed this week, however, when state health officials began cracking down on what the Boston Globe calls a “booming cottage industry” by sending letters to over 1,300 patients and 17 caregivers, warning them that state regulations only allow for caregivers to provide medical marijuana to one patient at a time.
“Unfortunately, the caregiver you specified has been designated by more than one qualifying patient,” the letters read. “Pursuant to DPH Regulations, an individual may not serve as a personal caregiver for more than one registered qualifirinq [sic] patient at one time.”
The letters inform the patients that until the dispensaries open, “you may choose a new personal caregiver, or determine that
you no longer require the services of a personal caregiver at this time,” adding that the caregivers, not the patients, were violating the law.
“They so easily say you can just find another caregiver or not use one at all,” says Scott Murphy, a 31-year-old Iraq veteran, who is president of Veterans for Safe Access and Compassionate Care. Murphy is also a medical marijuana patient who uses marijuana to ease the pain of his degenerative arthritis.
“It does not seem like a patient-centered approach. It is not that easy to grow your own, and that takes three or four months. This is not fair,” Murphy wrote in a letter to the Department of Public Health, saying that he believes they are misinterpreting the medical marijuana law as passed by voters.
One of the state’s best known caregivers, longtime marijuana activist Bill Downing, says he stopped providing medical marijuana to patients this week after receiving a cease and desist letter from state health officials.
One of the founding members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Downing is encouraging his patients to join a lawsuit he is filing against the state.
“The one-patient-per-caregiver regulation is illegal,” Downing told the Boston Globe. “It’s causing great harm.”
Downing added that the Department of Public Health “is more concerned with their regulations than they are with the well-being of the citizens of Massachusetts.”