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The state Department of Public Health has officially begun the process to approve medical marijuana dispensaries in seven counties that so far do not have any in the planning stage.
The seven counties considered "open" for dispensaries are Suffolk, Bristol, Hampden, Berkshire, Franklin, Dukes and Nantucket. Applicants who had previously applied to open dispensaries in those counties were ultimately rejected.
Four dispensary teams invited to apply will have to submit their applications between August 1 and August 29.
Christopher Taloumis of JCS Holdings, Inc. originally wanted to open a registered marijuana dispensary, or RMD, in Dennis. But another team was approved to move forward with a dispensary there. So Taloumis is looking elsewhere and has narrowed down the possibilities to a few locations.
He says he's glad DPH is stressing good geographic distribution of the facilities.
"A lot of these people that are going to the RMDs are sick," Taloumis said. "It's very unpleasant for them to have to get in the car and drive a long distance. So I think the more RMDs there are, closer to patients, providing better access is what it's all about."
DPH is using mapping software to distribute the facilities according to factors including highway access and rates of HIV and cancer — diseases considered qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.
The organization Coastal Compassion originally applied to open a dispensary in New Bedford, but another group was selected to proceed with a dispensary in Bristol County — in Fairhaven. That company, Brighton Health Advocates, was ultimately disqualified.
With Bristol County now open for a dispensary again, Keogh says his company will look in several South Shore communities in order to identify an appropriate location and secure support from local leaders. The company may seek to open its marijuana cultivation facility in New Bedford, with the dispensary elsewhere in the county.
Asked whether the application process has been more difficult than expected, Keogh calls it a challenge.
"As with any kind of emerging industry, there's no road map," he said. "I think to our benefit, we were able to manage our expectations and roll with the changes."
Taloumis says the process hasn't been as cut and dry as he expected.
"[The Department of Public Health], I think, is doing the best it can in new territory," Taloumis said. "But I can honestly say I've never had more sleepless nights in my life."
DPH faced widespread criticism for not thoroughly vetting applicants before provisionally approving 20 planned dispensaries in January. After revelations of false or misleading claims on applications, and accusations of political favoritism, DPH launched a more thorough verification process and nine of the original 20 dispensaries were eliminated.
Patriot Care Corp. has received a provisional certificate of registration for a proposed dispensary in Lowell. The company is also now allowed to apply for new locations for two dispensaries in the open counties. CEO Bob Mayerson says Patriot Care has already zeroed in on a site in Greenfield, in the western part of the state, and will now start seeking a site for a third proposed facility.
"Finding the right location that also has the perfect confluence of community support for that location is the challenge," Mayerson said.
Mass Medicum Corp., the fourth team seeking to open a dispensary in one of the seven open counties, says it will look at sites in Suffolk County.
Karen van Unen, executive director of the state's medical marijuana program, told the teams at an informational session on Wednesday that the scores on their original applications will stand, but they'll have to submit extensive documentation to apply for the new sites. They will then go through the more extensive vetting the other teams did.
"Depending on how the verification process goes, additional decisions may need to be made," van Unen said, indicating that any problems discovered on applications might lead to disqualification. "But you're literally picking [up] where you left off."
The dispensary groups that have already received provisional certificates are now moving on to local permitting and state inspections.