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Mass. names director of new medical marijuana program

A long-time health administrator was named Monday as executive director of the state’s nascent medical marijuana program, an appointment that comes with ultimate authority to decide which companies are granted licenses to open dispensaries where the drug will be sold.

Karen van Unen had served as a consultant to Massachusetts officials during the launch of the program and has been a chief operating officer and program director at a number of non-profit organizations in Boston. She will oversee “all aspects of the medical marijuana program,” according to a statement from the Department of Public Health.

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In addition to selecting which of the 100 applicants will win one of the 35 coveted dispensary licenses later this month, van Unen will have oversight over inspection of dispensaries, and the creation of a database listing people authorized to get medical marijuana, which is expected to be running later this year, the department said.

“Her management expertise in public health and commitment to safety and patient access will successfully guide the implementation of the Commonwealth’s medical marijuana program,” Cheryl Bartlett, state public health commissioner, said in a statement.

In addition to advising DPH, Van Unen spent the last year consulting for the Tufts University School of Public Health and UMass Boston, according to her resume.

She previously served as chief operating officer for eight years of DotWell, a Dorchester public health nonprofit agency.

Van Unen has a bachelor of arts in psychology, a master’s degree in education, and a master’s in business administration, all from Boston University, according to her resume, which lists fluency in Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamentu, a language spoken in several Caribbean islands.

“Karen’s combination of governance and clinical experience seems perfect for the role,” said Scott Hawkins, a consultant to several applicants hoping to be awarded dispensary licenses.

Van Unen is a board member and past president of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, which said in a statement that she is a skilled manager and administrator and a passionate public health advocate.

“It will not be an easy job, but we are confident that Karen has the skills to run a highly professional program that balances access for patients with serious health conditions with concerns about diversion, especially to youth,” Rebekah Gewirtz, the association’s executive director, said in a statement.

The health department is scheduled to announce its decision Jan. 30 on the awarding of the first 35 marijuana dispensary licenses. The agency last month named a seven-member committee to evaluate the applications and recommend which ones should be selected.

Documents released by the department late last year regarding the evaluation process stated that the committee would make its recommendations to the state’s public health commissioner.

“The DPH Commissioner will make the final decision in consultation with the Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services,” it said.

Department spokesman Dave Kibbe said Monday that that process has since changed.

“The final decision is made by van Unen,” he said. “People need to understand that the selection committee is a really important part of that process and that hasn’t changed.”

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