Patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other debilitating conditions complained Thursday that they are suffering because of the state’s delayed review of medical marijuana dispensaries and urged Governor Deval Patrick to accelerate the licensing process.
“Let me just feel a little human again,” Dr. Mark Weiner, a neurologist and sleep specialist who has been battling brain cancer for nearly two years, said at a press conference at the State House. He said marijuana could provide relief for his nausea without the side effects of other medications, yet it can still only be purchased illegally in Massachusetts 17 months after voters overwhelmingly approved its sale for medical purposes.
“So why isn’t it available?” said Weiner, who gathered with the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance and more than a dozen other patients, many in wheelchairs. “Have victims of illness fallen prey to political wrangling?”
The group delivered a letter to the governor, urging him to intervene in the dispensary licensing process. Concerns about the accuracy of claims made by some of the applicants has delayed the awarding of preliminary licenses, raising questions about whether state health officials can meet their goal of getting facilities open this summer.
Voters approved a November 2012 ballot initiative legalizing marijuana for medical treatment, allowing the state to approve 35 medical marijuana dispensaries. On Jan. 31, the Department of Public Health announced that it had approved 20 applications for preliminary licenses.
Since then, several problems have surfaced about misrepresentations and conflicts of interest involving several of the companies selected, and state officials acknowledged they did not check the veracity of the companies’ statements in their applications. A handful of losing applicants have filed lawsuits against the state in a bid to block the awarding of licenses, which have yet to be issued.
Last month, state health officials notified the 20 successful applicants that they will be required to undergo extensive additional background checks. It is unclear whether the new round of scrutiny will delay the opening of the dispensaries, which must be licensed and inspected by state and local officials before operators can begin cultivating marijuana.
In response to patients’ complaints Thursday, David Kibbe, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health, released a statement, saying: “DPH’s focus is on striking the appropriate balance between ensuring patient access and public safety. To that end, we are engaged in a process of fully verifying all information and operational plans submitted by dispensary applicants. That process takes time.”
A timeline on the agency’s website indicates the first dispensaries could open this summer.
But Lesley Rich, an attorney and president of Apex Compassion & Wellness Center, which unsuccessfully applied for a dispensary license in New Bedford and is suing the state, said it would be impossible for any dispensaries to open this summer.
The companies cannot even begin to grow marijuana until they are licensed and their facilities are inspected by the state, he said.
The Patient Advocacy Alliance is also urging Patrick to revise state regulations so that caregivers can cultivate marijuana for up to five patients, instead of only one.
Lisa Cole of Leicester said she is frustrated with the licensing process because her 5-year-old daughter suffers from up to 30 seizures a day and cannot get medical marijuana that has been used effectively in other states to treat children like her.
“All I want is a chance to give my daughter a better life,” said Cole, as her daughter sat beside her. “I’m not willing to go down a back alley [to buy drugs]. . . . It’s disappointing, because the focus has been taken off patients.”
Rich said during a telephone interview that he sympathizes with the patients, but state health officials failed to adequately vet applicants before granting preliminary approval.
“Even though people have lied and cheated, they still haven’t disqualified anybody,” Rich said. “The blame lies with the DPH and those that really designed the process. The process was flawed.”
Matthew Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said the group is not looking to cast blame and wants the focus to shift to opening marijuana dispensaries as swiftly as possible.
In the letter to Patrick, signed by Allen, he wrote, “Due to delays with the process, most patients still have no safe access to a proven treatment recommended by their doctors. Patients and their family members are now suffering unnecessarily.”