Massachusetts update

THE MASSACHUSETTS Department of Public Health spent last year under fire for a chemist who fabricated evidence at a drug lab and a compounding pharmacy that caused a meningitis outbreak. But the agency deserves high marks for its roll out of medical marijuana. After voters overwhelming approved medical marijuana, state health officials have taken this new responsibility seriously. They examined other programs across the country, and avoided pitfalls that befell other states.

For instance, Arizona used a lottery to decide who would get marijuana dispensary licenses, and ended up with companies that didn’t have the know-how or the capital to do the job well. Massachusetts, on the other hand, has the highest-caliber applicants in the nation.

Health officials designed a rigorous process for vetting applicants(list was posted on medifaded last year), which weighs a number of factors, including local support in the town where they intend to open, plans to keep the facilities secure, and the ability to make marijuana accessible to patients who can’t afford it. (This is important because, according to state law, people who can’t afford to buy it have the right to seek permission to grow it in their homes, which would be much more difficult to regulate.)

This request for detailed plans, as well as the $30,000 application fee, have eliminated all but the most serious candidates. The teams of 100 finalists vying for 35 licenses include at least five medical doctors, one former member of the US Congress, a former state Senate minority leader, a former secretary of public safety, and a senior staff member of a respected drug treatment program. This may be a calculated show of political muscle and mainstream respectability, but it also suggests that fly-by-night operations will struggle to compete for licenses.

Building any new system from scratch is bound to face difficulties. The process has had its challenges, including some confusion on exactly who will pick the licensees. Initially, applicants were told that a panel of experts would score the applications and then pass on their findings to a second panel. But it appears now that there is only one expert panel involved. Additionally, Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett was expected to make the final call. But in recent weeks, it was announced that Karen van Unen, who was recently named executive director of the state’s fledgling medical marijuana program, would make the decision.

Some have sought to make political hay over the changes. The Massachusetts Republican Party issued a press release declaring the process “tainted” and demanding that an independent commission be appointed to make the decision. The party argued that because Bartlett had given $500 to Delahunt in 2007, and because Unen reports to Bartlett, the process ought to be shut down completely.

But Delahunt is hardly the only well-connected politician to file for a dispensary license. There is no guarantee that an “independent commission” would eliminate the appearance of favoritism. Politicians’ applications should be judged on their merits. They should be neither rewarded nor punished for their political contacts.

Rather than radically change the entire system this late in the process, a better solution would be to require that the reasoning behind the license decisions be made public, including the scoring sheets of the panel of experts. Other states, including Maine, have released this information to the public. Massachusetts should do the same.

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