After a yearlong delay, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration said Tuesday it will move forward with a series of improvements to the state’s medical marijuana program, drawing praise from dispensaries and patients who said the changes are overdue.
The new rules, which were unveiled by the Department of Public Health in September 2016 but put on hold amid uncertainty over the recreational pot law approved by voters, are meant to ease the regulatory burden on dispensaries and make it easier for patients to get access to medical marijuana.
The department said it will now bring the proposal before the state Public Health Council for formal approval on Nov. 8, after which it must be certified by the secretary of the commonwealth’s office. Officials are hopeful the changes will be fully in place by the end of the year.
“This is big,” said Nichole Snow, president of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which represents patients who use medical marijuana and had sharply criticized the department for delaying the new regulations. “Massachusetts will have a broader, more accessible program for patients, caregivers, and providers the moment these regulations take hold.”
Once the new rules go into effect, certified nurse practitioners can apply for permission to issue marijuana recommendations, significantly expanding the pool of medical professionals from whom sick Massachusetts residents can seek legal access to the drug.
Previously, only doctors who registered with the Department of Public Health could hand out marijuana recommendations, which are needed to shop at a medical dispensary. Some areas of the state had few, if any, such practitioners.
The changes will also allow employees of nursing homes, hospice centers, and other medical facilities to administer cannabis to patients — a tentative step toward bringing medicinal marijuana within the bounds of mainstream medicine.
Additionally, medical dispensaries would be allowed to post their prices online, helping patients comparison shop, and could grow cannabis from clippings instead of seeds, boosting yields, lowering prices, and ensuring strains stay consistent over multiple harvests.
“The ability to cultivate from plant cuttings allows us more precision in the selection of the genetic profiles of our products, which in turn raises quality, safety, and efficacy,” said Michael Dundas, chief executive officer of Sage Cannabis, which owns medical dispensaries in Cambridge and Somerville.
He added the state’s medical marijuana industry will “generally be buttressed” by the expansion of patient access.
The Department of Public Health had initially said the delay in implementing the medical marijuana regulations was needed to ensure the proposed rules didn’t conflict with the Legislature’s rewritten version of the recreational pot law, which was passed in July. Then, officials said they were waiting to consult with the new Cannabis Control Commission, which is in the process of setting up the recreational market and will eventually assume oversight of medical marijuana, too.
Leaders from the two agencies met for the first time last week; Steve Hoffman, the chair of the cannabis commission, said he reiterated to Department of Public Health officials that those officials retained oversight of medical marijuana for now and did not need his commission’s approval to implement new rules. A spokeswoman for the health department said the two agencies will work together to ensure “a smooth transition.”Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.