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editorial

States should distribute marijuana via warehouses, not storefronts

Legalizing medical marijuana in Massachusetts was always bound to be easier to support in principle than in practice. That reality has become even clearer since Question 3’s passage in November. State public health officials now say they are likely to miss the May 1 deadline to issue regulations for potential growers and distributors of marijuana. The major sticking point has become where to put the storefront dispensaries — up to 35 of them — that the new law envisions. But a proposal by state Senator John Keenan of Quincy could resolve the impasse: Instead of allowing people to open storefront dispensaries, the state could create 10 secure warehouses and a courier system to deliver the medication to qualified patients.

Under Keenan’s proposal, there would be far less danger that marijuana grown for medicinal purposes would end up in the hands of teenagers or other illegal users. Cities and towns wouldn’t have to wrestle with the question of where to allow dispensaries. It’s a smart idea that deserves serious consideration on Beacon Hill.

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What’s become increasingly clear since November is that while large majorities of people want to see chronically ill people gain legal access to the drug — Question 3 passed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, and won every county in the state — almost no one wants a dispensary on their corner. Melrose, Peabody, Reading, Saugus, and Wakefield have already passed bans on dispensaries, and many other towns are mulling their own bans, moratoriums, or severe zoning restrictions.

A further complication is that groups including the Massachusetts Municipal Association want to make sure that marijuana-based products, such as brownies and lozenges, that are intended for patients who cannot smoke have been approved by local health departments before being dispensed. Such checks are necessary to prevent damaging misuse and other unexpected health dangers, as anyone who’s followed the grim saga of the state’s compounding pharmacies can attest. But thorough checks are costly and cumbersome to conduct. Enforcing rules would be easier at 10 centrally located warehouses than in 35 scattered dispensaries.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Medical Society, which had opposed Question 3 on the basis that the drug has not been subjected to rigorous testing by the US Food and Drug Administration, now argues that medicinal marijuana ID cards should expire and be renewed like traditional prescriptions. That, too, is an important check on fraud and abuse in the medical-marijuana system.

The Legislature should take its time to devise a system that reflects the priorities of the voters, who want seriously ill patients to have legal access to the drug without arbitrary hassles but also, it is now clear, want to protect those patients and the rest of soceity against unanticipated risks or abuses.

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