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Farah Stockman

Mass. puts the ‘medical’ in marijuana

Let’s take a little quiz: Which of the following people is hoping to run the first medical marijuana dispensary in Suffolk County?

a.) An ear, nose, and throat doctor from Newburyport;

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b.) A biotech entrepreneur;

c.) The owner of a pot bar in Denver that serves “Blue Dream” to the general public;

d.) The owner of a budget hotel in Revere;

e.) Two brothers who run the largest cannabis clinic on the planet, in Oakland, Calif., featured in the reality TV show “Weed Wars.”

The answer is: All of the above. This Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health will announce the list of licensees, who have gone through a vetting process as grueling as “Survivor.’’

We’re the first to mandate quality control of 100 percent of the pot that’s distributed.

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To prepare myself, I watched “Weed Wars.” It’s as California as you can get.

Steve and Andrew DeAngelo, of Harborside Health Center, work with a man who wears tie-dye dresses and a Gandalf-style beard. (His legal last name is Weddingdress.) Steve, who wears his hair in two long braids, tells the camera that Harborside serves 94,000 patients. Some suffer from cancer or epilepsy. Others have, shall we say, more nebulous conditions.

Maybe the DeAngelo brothers can hack it in Massachusetts, a state that saw fit to ban happy hour. But if they do set up shop here, I suspect they’ll have to change their tone.

Massachusetts, home to world-class hospitals, sees marijuana as medicine. And we take our medicine very seriously. Of 21 states with medical marijuana laws, we’re the first to mandate quality control of 100 percent of the pot that’s distributed. We require doctors to register, alongside their patients. And because marijuana is medicine, and we believe in health care for all, dispensaries must make pot affordable for the poor.

Massachusetts is going to do exhaustive research on marijuana. We’re going to figure out proper dosage and create medical standards. Colorado might drink marijuana-laced sarsaparilla soda and call it medicine, but mark my words: Massachusetts will invent a colorless, flavorless pill that doesn’t even give you a buzz.

“Our plan is to take the same therapeutic approach we do in drug discovery,” said Johan Pontin, CEO of Emerald Bio, which pioneers new medicines at a lab in Bedford.

Pontin, who applied for a license through an offshoot company, says it’s not just a chance to ease the pain of a couple of hundred cancer patients. It’s a chance to develop new drugs that might actually cure cancer itself.

That’s right. He says that caregivers in Rhode Island who’ve been working with marijuana for years have beaten back cancer with highly concentrated oils derived from cannabis.

“There was an 80-year-old patient with esophagus cancer,” he said. “Today, she is 91 years old and totally cancer-free. Even the insurance company couldn’t believe it.”

I couldn’t either. Until I interviewed Pierre Desprez, a molecular biologist at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute who has studied the genetic triggers that make cancer cells spread for two decades. He and his research partner, Sean McAllister, took cannabidiol — one of 85 chemical compounds in pot — and put it in Petri dishes with human cancer cells. It seemed to turn off the cancer “trigger” and slow the spread, Desprez said.

Then they discovered that mice with cancer who were injected with cannabidiol lived longer and had fewer, smaller tumors.

Desprez noted that cannabidiol is not the compound that makes you high. It is not psychoactive.

“We need it in a spray or pill form, that is almost pure,” he said. “Smoking is not going to do anything.”

I was stunned: If there’s a chance that marijuana can fight cancer, why hasn’t it been tested in humans?

“For a clinical trial, you need a lot of money,” Desprez said. Investors aren’t so interested, he said, because you’re dealing with a plant that anybody can grow: “It’s not like you are going to make a lot of profit.”

Patients and caregivers have been left to experiment on their own. “We receive e-mails all the time from people who are dying,” Desprez said. “They are willing to try anything.”

So maybe — just maybe — Massachusetts’ rigorous approach to medical marijuana will have an impact far beyond our state. If there is one city on the planet that can turn Bob Marley’s ganja into a pill that cures cancer, but doesn’t get you high, it’s Boston.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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