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Shirley Leung

Mass. mellow on marijuana licensing

John Polanowicz, the state’s secretary of health and human services, sounds awfully mellow for someone whose agency seems to have bungled the way Massachusetts has handed out its first batch of pot licenses.

But don’t worry, he tells me, every little thing is going to be all right about how we dispense medical marijuana. In fact, the system is working as it should, according to Polanowicz. Better we learn now, even if it’s through the media, of problems with some of the applicants — before they’re growing and selling weed.

“The analogy is going through a job search,” said Polanowicz, ever so politely and calmly, in a phone interview Tuesday. “You go through a large number of applicants. We have finalists. Like any job search, you start to call references.”


Wow, that explains everything, really. I mean, who doesn’t offer someone a job and then check their references? That’s Human Resources 101, right?

Maybe this rather unorthodox hiring approach is the reason why it’s just coming out now, thanks to my Globe colleagues, that two of the 20 finalists for licenses may have lied about their local support. Another finalist has been sued by creditors for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while one other failed to disclose a key player who filed for bankruptcy.

Polanowicz said “thorough” background checks have already been conducted, but more verification will be done before anyone opens for business.

“Right now, no one has a license to operate a dispensary,” he said. “Really, we’re right in the middle of intense vetting.”

Halfway through the conversation, I began to wonder if he was smoking something.

Here we are ushering in a controversial new business that is illegal in most other states and arguably the gateway to legalizing recreational marijuana use in Massachusetts. The process to get one of 35 licenses should be a lot a tougher than this. Don’t even get me started on how a team led by former congressman Bill Delahunt could get three of the coveted licenses.


The more I learn, the less I like about how the state operates — something you hear a lot these days about the fading Patrick administration.

The Department of Public Health, for example, is just now conducting face-to-face interviews with all 20 finalists, as they’re calling them now. Back in late January, when the state revealed its selection, they sounded like they would be the designated pioneers in the state’s medical marijuana industry, barring any issues with local permits.

But Polanowicz emphasized that these 20 teams only have “provisional status,” and that meetings over the next month will help determine whether they will get licenses. The secretary said he wants to “make sure we get it right,” and “we also want to make sure we get the right people.”

Then the former hospital president and former Army commander repeated to me what he’s told others about applicants that may have tried to pull a fast one on the state.

“If they’ve lied or misrepresented their applications, they won’t get a license.”

Or his agency could have done what the state gaming commission did. Casino license applicants had to pass the commission’s background check before they could even complete an application. Imagine that. Weed out all the bad seeds at the start.

And these background checks were rigorous. No honor system here. The 11 casino and slots applicants had as many as 100 investigators combing through their business. State troopers, former FBI agents, forensic accountants, and prosecutors — I mean, who wasn’t involved in vetting casino operators?


All of this made me wonder, why is the state approaching these two types of licenses so differently, even though the stakes are high in each case?

In part, it’s how these vices became law. In the case of gaming, the Legislature spent years crafting the statute, backed by voluminous research and public debates, allowing for more thoughtful implementation. Medical marijuana, on the other hand, was put on the ballot in 2012 by a patient-advocacy group. To everyone’s surprise, voters passed the initiative, and while the group did its homework designing the law, there was a lot left for state officials to do on a tight deadline.

With one jilted applicant having filed a lawsuit and others threatening action over the process and the Legislature ordering a review, would Polanowicz consider a do-over?

“Why would we throw out a process that is revealing things?” he said.

Hmm, I might just have to put that in my pipe and smoke it.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.