Business

State warns Leafly on ads for pot-delivery services

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 19: Various types of marijuana are on display at Private Organic Therapy (P.O.T.), a non-profit co-operative medical marijuana dispensary, on October 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new guidelines today for federal prosecutors in states where the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is allowed under state law. Federal prosecutors will no longer trump the state with raids on the southern California dispensaries as they had been doing, but Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley recently began a crackdown campaign that will include raids against the facilities. Cooley maintains that virtually all marijuana dispensaries are in violation of the law because they profit from their product. The city of LA has been slow to come to agreement on how to regulate its 800 to 1,000 dispensaries. Californians voted to allow sick people with referrals from doctors to consume cannabis with the passage of state ballot Proposition 215 in 1996 and a total of 14 states now allow the medicinal use of marijuana. ( David McNew/Getty Images)

David McNew/Getty Images

Various types of marijuana are on display.

Massachusetts officials are warning that the online marijuana directory Leafly may be violating state law by publishing ads for pot-delivery services they say are operating without state oversight.

The website is one of the most popular in the cannabis industry, widely used by consumers to find nearby dispensaries and other licensed suppliers in states such as Massachusetts that have legalized the drug.

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Last April, Leafly removed ads for more than 20 Massachusetts delivery services after the state Department of Public Health, which oversees the medical marijuana program, questioned their legality. But two weeks ago, the website re-listed several delivery outfits, saying it had verified their owners were state-licensed “personal caregivers” authorized to supply patients with pot.

Health officials reiterated this week that the delivery operations appear to be violating provisions of the medical marijuana law that limit most caregivers to one patient at a time, and prohibit them from profiting from the transaction. Only the state’s licensed nine dispensaries are permitted to sell marijuana to multiple patients, the officials said, adding that they had told Leafly as much a year ago.

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“In April 2016, DPH made clear to Leafly what the law allows with respect to dispensaries, personal caregivers, and delivery of marijuana for medical use,” a department spokesman said in a statement. “Leafly’s decision to again accept these ads appears to be in direct conflict with the principle of safe patient access and the law.”

The state, along with patient advocates, are worried that the delivery services are conducting an end-run around the background checks, lab testing, and other extensive requirements imposed on licensed brick-and-mortar dispensaries.

The DPH spokesman said anyone “distributing marijuana outside of state regulations may be subject to law enforcement action.”

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In Massachusetts, caregivers are often close friends or family members of patients. But the regulations also allow medical professionals, as well as home health aides and personal care attendants already caring for a patient, to serve more than more than one at a time.

Leafly said employees of the delivery companies, acting as personal care attendants, are legally allowed to serve multiple patients, pointing to guidance it received from DPH. Its executives also said that demand for medical marijuana far exceeds the capacity of the nine licensed dispensaries operating in Massachusetts, and that numerous patients, frustrated by lack of access, had asked Leafly to restore the listings.

Health officials said they had issued provisional approvals to 80 applicants seeking to open medical dispensaries.

The company said it asked DPH to further clarify its guidance months ago, but received no reply. The ads will remain online, Leafly said, “unless and until the regulations are clarified,” adding that, “If the state has concerns about these caregivers, [it] should reach out to them directly.”

“We have heard from hundreds of Massachusetts patients (many of whom are elderly and/or disabled) who depend on licensed caregivers to help them access medical cannabis,” Leafly said in a statement. “After careful consideration and review of the regulations ... Leafly has decided to begin listing licensed caregivers to better serve the patients who rely on our website to make informed decisions.”

Leafly is owned by Privateer Holdings, a $122-million cannabis investment fund that also controls a line of Bob Marley-branded marijuana products.

Though DPH threatened the delivery services with legal action last year, the department was unable to say whether it has referred any to law enforcement officials for investigation. A spokesman said only that the department will take “appropriate action” after reviewing the listings.

‘They may see it as a calculated business risk, but they’re putting our patients at risk.’

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Several of the delivery providers did not return requests for comment.

The ads for the delivery services don’t disclose the sources of the product. The state says a caregiver registered under the medical marijuana law is permitted to buy marijuana from dispensaries on behalf of his or her patient, or in certain cases grow a limited number of plants for him or her. Under the new recreational marijuana law, anyone can grow a small number of plants, but only for personal consumption, not for sale.

Other marijuana websites also allow delivery services to advertise, Leafly vice president Zack Hutson said. For example, a map of marijuana providers on Weedmaps.com included four delivery services that appeared to be in Southern Maine, but whose listings indicated they were located in Massachusetts and delivered pot to particular parts of the state.

After being notified of DPH’s concerns by the Globe, Weedmaps removed the services from its site Thursday, saying it had been unaware of the listings. Executives at the firm believe the operators circumvented a Weedmaps ban on advertising pot delivery in Massachusetts by buying map “pins” that put their location in Maine, and then surreptitiously altering their delivery details later.

The online ads have drawn the ire of patient advocates and some licensed dispensaries, who contend the delivery services are illegal, endanger patients, and risk attracting unwanted attention from federal law enforcement.

Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said her group contacted several of the services and none claimed, as Leafly does, that they were “personal care attendants.”

“I don’t know what Leafly is thinking,” Snow said. “They may see it as a calculated business risk, but they’re putting our patients at risk. I thought we were beyond this.”

Daniel Delaney, a lobbyist for Patriot Care, which operates medical marijuana shops in Boston and Lowell, said the delivery companies are essentially hawking “marijuana moonshine.”

“Dispensaries have literally spent years and millions of dollars to get approved . . . and it’s frustrating when they see people doing an end-run around that process,” Delaney said.

But Hutson said the dispensaries are only complaining to protect their own profits from competition.

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.

Correction: This story has been updated to say that it is medical marijuana buyers who are prodding the state to license more dispensaries.

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