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The Boston Globe

Metro

Adrian Walker

Medical marijuana off to rocky start

Medical marijuana was always a divisive idea, but last week will be remembered as the moment it became a full-fledged fiasco.

After what had been billed as a thorough vetting process — but now looks like anything but — state officials have awarded licenses for 20 dispensaries across the state. If the early reaction is any indication, maybe they should start over.

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While the winning bidders were required to show local support for their plans, officials in Boston and Haverhill said last week that their support was exaggerated or manipulated. Meanwhile, charges of conflicts of interest, which have dogged this process since early on, sprang up as well, fueled by the connection of many successful applicants to political heavyweights.

What is at issue here — at this point, at least — is not the value of medical marijuana per se. Properly managed, it can benefit thousands of residents coping with chronic illness and pain. It is the state’s ability to manage this that leaves so much to be desired. One of the successful applicants, a company called Good Chemistry, has admitted that its application for a Boston dispensary erroneously declared support from a state representative and district councilor who never agreed to support the project.

In addition, Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy told the Globe he declared his support for a dispensary in the Back Bay despite never being told where, exactly, it was slated to go. He said he never would have supported dispensing medical marijuana at the approved Boylston Street site, and describes himself as feeling duped.

In Haverhill too, officials have raised flags about their supposed support. On Friday the state said it would contact officials whose support has been declared in filings.

This may seem like a lot of bureaucratic minutiae. It isn’t. If the Department of Public Health cannot properly vet applicants, how do you feel about its ability to oversee the actual dispensing of marijuana?

From the outset, an obvious issue with the dispensaries would be where they would be located. Not surprisingly, many local officials expressed concern almost immediately. That was before an army of high-paid, well-connected lobbyists sprang into action to soothe neighborhood concerns. But some of the same officials they lobbied are now claiming to have been misled.

The name of former US Representative William Delahunt has come up a lot in the medical marijuana controversy, and not in a flattering context. The longtime South Shore lawmaker and former Norfolk district attorney is now a lobbyist whose clients won three licenses. Delahunt is reportedly being paid $250,000 a year to serve as the titular head of Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts, though there is no pretense that he will manage the company’s daily affairs.

Questions have been raised about Delahunt’s longstanding relationship with Cheryl Bartlett, the state’s public health commissioner, who has held fund-raisers on his behalf. Bartlett has said that she played no role in picking Delahunt’s clients, though her agency decided which companies would get licenses. I have no reason to doubt her, but the appearance is terrible.

From Governor Deval Patrick on down, state officials have stressed that the process is not complete. But the DPH has a lot of work to do to regain public confidence.

Some suspect that medical marijuana just might be the first step toward legal, nonmedicinal marijuana in our state. After all, Massachusetts has already decriminalized possession. Meanwhile two other states, Colorado and Washington, have recently legalized marijuana, a venture being viewed with great curiosity in other states where political opposition to legalizing marijuana appears to be weakening.

But our early experience with marijuana might be reason to give everyone a bit of pause. Legal marijuana will need far more regulation than the program being created now, and clearly we can’t handle it.

At this point, the only people being helped by medical marijuana are the lobbyists.

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

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