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Mass. Communities Seek Delay In Medical Marijuana Law

BOSTON — In just over two weeks it will be legal in Massachusetts for people with certain medical conditions to use marijuana. But is the state ready?

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which will oversee the growth and distribution of medical marijuana, has until the end of April to write regulations. But the new law has some businesses jumping at the opportunity while local officials are seeking to slow down the process.

CannaMed, a California based for-profit medical marijuana evaluation center run by doctors with ties to Boston, has already rented space in Framingham.

“We’ve looked at a number of locations in the Boston area. That’s where we ended up. No particular reason,” said CannaMed regional manager Richard Tav.

CannaMed plans to open its fifth location in Massachusetts in January.

“We are hoping that we’ll be welcomed and we’ll be able to offer an alternative option to a patient in need,” Tav said.

The clinic owners believe they won’t need to wait for regulations from the state because they will not be dispensing marijuana. Clinic doctors will be evaluating patients’ medical records and deciding whether to recommend them for a medical marijuana card. That card will have to be approved and issued by the state, similar to a driver’s license. Any doctor can write a recommendation to use marijuana, but many choose not to.

“What we’re seeing are primary physicians that are referring patients to us because that’s what CannaMed is, a specialty in this industry,” Tav said.

CannaMed is one of what will be many businesses opening in response to the new law.

“It worries me enormously,” said state Sen. John Keenan of Quincy, the chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

“It will be during the first 120 days after its effective date there’ll be a situation where anything will go,” Keenan said. “All that somebody needs to be able to possess marijuana is a medical certification which can be obtained from a physician not necessarily from Massachusetts.”

Sen. Keenan is writing a bill to delay the law. The measure approved by voters in November allows as many as 35 dispensaries to open next year, with a maximum of five per county. The public health department will regulate how the dispensaries operate, but won’t control where the centers go. That’s left local officials scrambling and asking for more time.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association, a group of more than 200 cities and towns headed by Geoff Beckwith, has asked for a six-month delay in the law.

“Some communities may wish to say they prefer not to have and don’t want to have dispensaries in their community,” Beckwith said. “Others might want to have them located in an area near medical facilities.”

Many towns won’t have the chance to approve dispensaries because most town meetings aren’t held until the spring.

“Here we have something that was overwhelming passed by the voters and we can’t get any information whatsoever from Department of Public Health where they stand on even the progress of their regulations at this point,” said Michael Hugo, chair of the Framingham Board of Health.

Many state and local officials say the new law is vague. Sen. Keenan says his bill would create a clear system where a person would obtain marijuana in the same way a patient gets prescription medicine.

“Where the physician would authorize use on a secure prescription pad and perhaps do that through courier and mail so that we don’t have dispensaries in the communities and we don’t have cultivation occurring in the communities,” Keenan said.

At least two towns have voted already to ban dispensaries — Wakefield and Reading. Other communities are considering similar moves. But lawmakers say it’s unclear if the medical marijuana law gives cities and towns the authority to say no.

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