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Interim Mass. public health chief stepping down

Dr. Lauren Smith, the state’s interim public health commissioner, testified at a hearing on the meningitis outbreak on Nov. 14, 2012, in Washington, DC.

Leslie E. Kossoff/Globe Photo

Dr. Lauren Smith, the state’s interim public health commissioner, testified at a hearing on the meningitis outbreak on Nov. 14, 2012, in Washington, DC.

Dr. Lauren Smith, appointed interim public health commissioner last fall after two scandals that rocked the agency, said Friday she will step down next month after finalizing Massachusetts’ first rules to regulate the use of medical marijuana.

Smith, who specializes in childhood health and had been the department’s medical director since 2007, wrote in an e-mail to staff members that the “last several months have been difficult” for the department and for “those of us that care deeply about this agency’s work in public health.”

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Smith said her 5½ years at the department were among the most rewarding of her career, “even on the difficult days.”

The department has been under scrutiny since last fall’s deadly national meningitis outbreak linked to a Framingham pharmacy regulated by the agency and the mishandling of drug evidence by a chemist at the agency’s former drug lab, which has jeopardized thousands of criminal cases.

Smith’s predecessor, John Auerbach, who was appointed state health commissioner in 2007, resigned in September amid the widening drug lab investigation.

Smith offered no reason for leaving or information about where she may be headed, other than to say that she would be taking some time to catch her breath, and that her departure allows her new boss, public health secretary John Polanowicz, “to assemble his own team.”

She said her last day with the department will be May 10, two days after a scheduled final vote by regulators on the proposed medical marijuana rules.

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Department spokesman Dave Kibbe said Smith would not comment further Friday beyond her statement.

Polanowicz, in a note to staff members, praised Smith’s work as interim commissioner, highlighting her stewardship of the medical marijuana regulations, and the strengthened oversight of specialty pharmacies after the fungal meningitis outbreak.

He also highlighted her accomplishments during her five years as the agency’s medical director, which included championing strong youth antitobacco programs, providing clear guidance to schools and communities during the 2009 national H1N1 flu pandemic, and overseeing development of sports head injury regulations for schools.

“These regulations have been recognized by the national Centers for Disease Control as best practices for other states to look toward,” Polanowicz said.

He said he has “launched a search for a successor to take over as commissioner in the near future,” but did not offer a timetable of when he expects to name that person.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.

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