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Adrian Walker

Finding that pot of gold

Dan Delaney is a health care lobbyist, but not the high-powered, $1,000 suit kind. He’s a soft-spoken former Department of Public Health official who often guides political neophytes through the maze of health care regulations.

So I was surprised a few weeks ago when he mentioned that he’s been working with Tom Finneran, the high-powered former House speaker. Working on what?

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“Medical marijuana,” Delaney told me. “We’re working together with a bunch of companies applying for dispensaries. You’d be surprised at some of the lobbyists involved.”

Their odd-couple marriage of policy expert and power broker is emblematic of the unlikely alliances that have quietly formed in pursuit of the coveted licenses to dispense medical marijuana. Licenses have attracted the interest of a host of former State House heavyweights, people more likely to be seen twisting arms for major corporations or hospitals.

The lobbyists are betting that there is good money to be made soon — and perhaps much bigger money a bit down the road — in the legal weed business. And they have a ready-made pool of clients, because many of the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs that helped promote the acceptance of medical marijuana are finding that they need help, both financial and political, if they hope to navigate the big leagues in which they suddenly find themselves.

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Thirty-five licenses to dispense medical marijuana will be awarded. Each county will get at least one, with a maximum of five.

The vetting process is stringent: Successful applicants will have to show that they have $500,000 in hard cash, as well as a place from which to dispense their product. They won’t be subject to local votes, a la casinos, but applicants are required to submit letters from local officials attesting to their community support. The original 181 applications have been culled to roughly 100, and the selection process is expected to be over by the end of January.

If the experience of other states is a guide, the licenses could be lucrative. Massachusetts has required that the bidders be nonprofits, but that isn’t to say there won’t be, shall we say, proceeds from sales. As Delaney points out, Partners HealthCare is a nonprofit, and it does a lot better than break even. “People who run [dispensaries] well will make a good return,” he predicted.

Besides navigating the State House, the nonprofits need to win the support of their neighbors. The lobbyists are paid to help with both. It’s no surprise to see David Passafaro, a confidant of Mayor Thomas Menino, working on behalf a group that hopes to site dispensaries in Roxbury and Mattapan, or Bill Delahunt working the South Shore. They know the players.

“A lot of what the lobbyists do is like translation, because the medical people and the local politicians speak different languages,” Delaney explained.

Of course, the real jackpot for the money guys would be if the state moves to fully legalize marijuana for recreational, not just medical, use — as Colorado has recently done.

Given the recent trend of watering possession penalties down to nearly nothing, that idea isn’t as far-fetched as it would have sounded a couple of years ago. Many people believe legal recreational marijuana is just a matter of time.

And when Colorado began granting licenses to sell marijuana for fun, the first licenses went to people who were already dispensing medical marijuana. They had the infrastructure in place.

Voters supported medical marijuana as a way of easing chronic, heart-breaking pain. But the lobbyists see a bigger, and more lucrative, picture. Marijuana turns out to be an issue on which strangers can become fast friends.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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