Medical marijuana patients concerned about delays

Doctor fears political wrangling

Medical marijuana advocates Dr. Mark Weiner of Sharon and Eric McCoy of Boston.

On a day when attention was focused on legislation that would legalize and tax recreational marijuana, advocates for medical marijuana converged on Beacon Hill on Thursday to protest the delay in approving dispensaries.

Patients and advocates expressed fears that the public outcry over how the Department of Public Health selected the 20 companies that received initial approvals for dispensaries, including three given to a nonprofit headed by former congressman William Delahunt, may delay medical marijuana store openings into late 2014.

“Have victims of illness fallen prey to political wrangling?” asked Dr. Mark Weiner, a neurologist with brain cancer who spoke at a State House news conference. (CommonWealth interviewed Wiener about his study of the drug for the Spring 2014 issue.)

Public health officials are currently double-checking the accuracy of information provided by the 20 companies that received initial approvals. The department also plans to conduct facility and other inspections. Department officials must sign off on the firms’ operation plans and confirm that the companies actually have community support.

Anne Roach, a DPH spokeswoman, said in a statement that the current timeline calls for issuing final certificates to dispensaries this summer. “DPH’s focus is on striking the appropriate balance between ensuring patient access and public safety,” she said. “To that end, we are engaged in a process of fully verifying all information and operational plans submitted by dispensary applicants. That process takes time.”

The application process has tripped up the department. DPH officials initially performed limited background checks before making selections. Two companies seeking licenses in Boston and Haverhill did not have the backing of local officials despite their claims to the contrary. A Colorado couple who received approvals for three dispensaries had an earlier license pulled in the Centennial State.

“I understand that the Department of Public Health is going through a verification process, but we would like to see that tied up and have these registrations issued,” said Matthew Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which sponsored the news conference.

Allen said that since the registrations are “probationary” and “can be revoked” at any time, the state should go ahead and issue them to the companies which have received preliminary approvals.

Rep. Frank Smizik, a Brookline Democrat who has been supportive of the group’s efforts, said that state public health officials can’t rush the process. “This is a very controversial topic,” Smizik said. “The department wants to do it right, and I don’t blame them.”

Alliance members delivered letters to the offices of Gov. Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray urging them to take steps to expedite the registration process.

Patients stressed that they were eager to obtain marijuana through dispensaries without having to continue to resort to back alley deals to get the plants that they use as medicine. “We need safe access,” said Eric McCoy, a Boston resident who has used medical marijuana for nearly 20 years to alleviate his multiple sclerosis symptoms.

Medical marijuana patients find themselves literally competing for lawmakers’ attention on the drug. The patient advocates’ Thursday news conference got underway as the Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony on a bill that would legalize marijuana for personal use— and preempt a possible 2016 ballot question.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

However, the patient advocates said the two issues are completely different.

“Whether legalization or taxation or regulation of marijuana for recreational use proceeds, there will still be a need for medical marijuana,” said Allen. “There is a need for patients to have access to different strains than recreational users prefer, for education in the medical community, and for [subsidies] for patients since this medicine is not covered by insurance.”