Blaming a lack of leadership on the part of Gov. Deval Patrick and his top health care chief, patients and advocates for access to medical marijuana accused the state Department of Public Health Monday of letting politics get in the way of enabling those with illnesses from accessing the drug under a law that's nearly two years old.
Mass. Patient Advocacy Alliance Executive Director Matthew Allen told reporters and activists at a State House press conference that Patrick has not lived up to his responsibility to implement the will of the voters. Allen called the situation a "serious public health issue" and "scandalous," saying he knows people who have been robbed or assaulted while trying to get medical marijuana on the black market.
"It appears the governor wants to skip out of office without addressing medical marijuana because he doesn't want to talk about it and he doesn't want to deal with it," Allen said.
Only a few months ago, Allen said, he defended DPH and did not place blame on anyone for the delays.
"Well, five months later, we're here again and we're in the same situation and there is plenty of blame to go around," Allen said Monday. "And it starts at the Department of Public Health and it goes up to Secretary Polanowicz, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and it lands right at Gov. Deval Patrick's feet."
Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz defended the agency's work implementing the law which legalized marijuana for medical use, which voters passed in 2012. DPH gave provisional approval to 11 potential dispensaries earlier this year.
"I certainly don't feel like we're trying to slide this across the finish line. The department is working very hard to get these open with the 11 that are currently in the inspectional phase," Polanowicz told reporters after the marijuana advocates went to drop off a letter to Patrick.
The letter calls for the immediate registration of dispensaries, an additional 50 dispensary licenses throughout the state, a caregiver registration system and increases in the number of patients a caregiver can service.
Eric McCoy, a Boston resident with multiple sclerosis, was among seven patients who use or would like to use medical marijuana who spoke at the event. McCoy said he also thinks Patrick is "waiting to get out of office before anything is done with this program."
"We need leadership. We need the secretary of DPH and HHS and Gov. Patrick to revive this sinking ship. Because the ship, for medical marijuana, is sinking," McCoy said.
Allen described his group's efforts to defend the agency and the process to implement the legalization of the drug through most of the last two years.
"And then, everything fell apart. Due to politics, the whole system was put on hold. Several months ago we got this list of approved dispensaries and still nothing has happened. It's time to move forward," Allen said.
Allen also said the group pleaded with Gov. Deval Patrick to change regulations concerning marijuana caregivers to allow multiple clients per grower in order to increase medication access before the dispensaries open. Allen claimed DPH stalled the approval process once the media began reporting on how the licensing was being conducted. He also recommended systems like the ones in Maine and Rhode Island, which used lotteries to select dispensary operators.
"The verification process took additional time and we're working through the issues of both the cities and towns, some of whom want this in their communities and some of whom don't. So it's much more complex than, for instance, the states that just did a lottery and did it on a first-come, first-serve basis," Polanowicz said.
Maddy, the sic-year-old daughter of Lisa Cole of Leicester, has an intractable seizure disorder which Cole said at the press event could be helped with medical marijuana.
"Mr. Governor, how can you expect us to be patient any longer. We hear countless stories of children with intractable seizures like Maddy finding success using a specialized cannabis treatment in states where it is legal today. Why are we still unable to access a treatment through dispensaries that could ease Maddy's suffering?" Cole asked.
When asked if his department plans to stay on the current timeline for licensing before Patrick leaves office in January, Polanowicz said they would.
"The department is not letting up on the gas in terms of getting this program done," Polanowicz said.