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The Massachusetts lawmaker investigating how the state is licensing medical marijuana dispensaries says he's just getting started.
Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, was selected by House Speaker Robert DeLeo to conduct the review, which comes after allegations that the state Department of Public Health didn't adequately vet dispensary applicants before giving them provisional approval.
Sanchez has submitted a lengthy list of questions to the DPH, and when he spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer she asked if he feels satisfied with the answers he's gotten so far.
Jeffrey Sanchez: I have no doubt that we're going to have more questions, just because their response was an 18-page response. So I could see us getting further into their answers to try and understand better how did they reach the conclusions that they have that allowed the applicants to move forward — the ones that did — and at the same time be able to understand how they're moving forward, given all the attention that they've been receiving.
Sacha Pfeiffer: It seems that DPH has changed its rules or changed its procedures to vet the dispensary applicants since concerns about the process have been raised in the media. For example, the agency is now calling this the verification phase and saying that it hasn't issued any provisional registrations, when clearly what they announced on January 31 was the applicants chosen to receive provisional registrations. So how do you respond to that?
Again, we're still trying to get our arms around it. I don't want to get caught up in technicalities. I want to be able to really understand how did they define "provisional" and what was the process that they utilized to get from the 100 and some-odd applications down to the 20 that they decided to move forward? And not only that, did they do background checks on everybody? And, if not, why didn't they? Or were they trying to weed it down from the large pool of applicants down to a smaller pool?
I have in front of me the press release that went out from the Department of Public Health on January 31, and the headline says, "Massachusetts Approves 20 Registered Marijuana Dispensaries To Create Patient Access And Jobs Across The Commonwealth." When you hear that language, "approves 20 registered dispensaries," does it feel to you now like DPH is back-pedaling when it says this is only an early stage of provisional?
I didn't see the press release so I'm not going to speak to that. I can't speak to that. I just can say, again, we're trying to understand the process that they outlined in front of us.
You made a reference to whether this could just be sort of be language or wording, and we've had a lot of those debates in our own newsroom about whether it's semantic to argue over whether it's a provisional [license]. But I'm wondering if you have an overall sense that as there's been so much scrutiny by the press on this process, do you feel like DPH is kind of changing the terms in a protective maneuver?
No, I can't get into that right now. If you look at the broader picture, this entire process in every state has gone through this in one way or the other. I think what DPH was trying to do was try to go above what everybody else had done. Above and beyond. But in the practicality, it's another world, and that's what we want to understand . And I think that with the work all of you have done — you know, bringing attention to certain things — it's helped inform us in the Legislature, as well.
The medical marijuana program director, Karen van Unen, said at the very top of her memo to you, her reply memo, that she's "confident in the strength and integrity of the program structure and process." How would you describe your level of confidence?
We definitely want to make sure that she's living up to that statement. That's why we're doing what our responsibility is to the citizens of this commonwealth, to make sure that we're responsible to what the voters wanted and passed, and making sure that it's done in the highest ethical manner, especially given what this new industry means to the commonwealth. This is a brand-new industry. It will be an extremely lucrative industry. And, at the same time, there's a lot of other things that could happen in and around this industry that we want to make sure that we're able to control. We understand a lot of things from the California experience, the Colorado experience, in particular. And we want to make sure that Massachusetts doesn't make the same mistakes that they have.
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