By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS
BOSTON — One sign held up high read “Thanks for nothing, Deval." Another said: “Do your job DPH.”
Below the signs, a crowd of 50 protesters on Tuesday gathered outside the Department of Public Health’s downtown Boston headquarters to decry the slow implementation of a medical marijuana system two years after voters endorsed a ballot question sanctioning the idea.
“We have zero cannabis plants in the ground to serve the patients,” said Mickey Martin, a medical marijuana activist.
“It’s unacceptable to make patients wait,” he added, after the crowd chanted, “Two years, too late.”
Martin said even if a plant goes into the ground today, it will take another three months before it can be cultivated.
Jill Osborn, a 35-year-old from Georgetown, said in the two years since the vote, her daughter Haley has suffered 9,000 seizures due to refractory epilepsy.
Medical marijuana would reduce the number of seizures, Osborn contended, as it has with similarly afflicted patients in Colorado, which legalized medical marijuana in 2000.
“They’re allowing her life to be in danger every day,” she said of state public health officials.
Martin said activists have not decided whether to take legal action over the implementation process, and are instead focused on a “public awareness” campaign. “Other states have done it in a matter of months,” Martin said.
During a radio appearance last week, Gov. Deval Patrick said his administration was seeking to balance the law’s implementation with the proper vetting of applicants for medical marijuana dispensaries.
In a statement Tuesday, state Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said medical marijuana dispensaries are in the “final inspection phase” prior to opening.
“Once dispensaries pass inspection and meet local requirements, they will be ready to start growing and preparing to open,” he said. “Some dispensaries have indicated they will be ready to do so by the end of this year. As part of our commitment to ensuring patient access across the Commonwealth, DPH is also currently reviewing applications for dispensaries in open counties.”
Patrick, while speaking on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” program as part of a regular “Ask the Governor” segment, admitted he was frustrated by his administration officials’ slow efforts after he was asked by co-host Jim Braude.
“Yes, I am,” Patrick said. “I mean, they know that.”
Patrick said the state has not provisionally licensed dispensaries in every county.
“There is frustration in the places where none of the applicants who applied in a given county were qualified,” Patrick said. “And there’s a real tension here, at least as I experience it, between folks who want to hurry up and have the access that the people voted for two years ago, as you say, and making sure that the people who are in the business actually are the right people, are the people who say they are, are the people whose representations are in fact honest, and accurate and above board. And that has proven to be a challenge.”
Patrick said state officials made a “tremendous effort” toward a thorough process and an attempt to show the public each stage of the vetting of applicants, which was “well-intended but turned out to have been fraught with the possibility of misunderstanding.”
The public “quite reasonably” has an expectation that there will be a dispensary conveniently located in every county, he said.
“But, you know, it’s a market-based sort of strategy, which is to say you make the licenses available and you wait for eligible applicants to show up,” Patrick said. “And in some counties none of the applicants were eligible. And that is a real source of frustration for a whole lot of people.”
The 2012 ballot law allows DPH to register 35 dispensaries, with a limit to five dispensaries per county.
In June, DPH said it had handed out 11 provisional certifications to potential dispensaries in Salem, Milford, Ayer, Quincy, Newton, Haverhill, Brockton, Brookline, Northampton, Lowell and Dennis. That left seven counties without a dispensary: Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket and Suffolk counties.
The Patrick administration’s efforts have come in for criticism from the candidates vying to succeed the governor. All three Democratic candidates, including the current nominee Martha Coakley, said during a September debate that the state needed a “do-over,” a stance the administration disagrees with.
Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, said he shared the protesters’ concerns. “No one said it was going to be easy,” Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain) told the News Service on Tuesday.
Sanchez said the medical marijuana implementation is “completely different” from other state government implementation efforts, because medical marijuana will not be provided through something like a CVS pharmacy, but rather a licensed dispensary.
“I want them to get it right,” he said.
Sen. James Welch (D-West Springfield), who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, agreed. “I think it’s hard with anything new,” he said.
“I do believe the voters spoke two years ago,” he added.