Regulations for the medical use of marijuana in Massachusetts are scheduled to be adopted next month, but even then, many key details will remain unresolved, making it likely that dispensaries will not open for many months, a top state health official said Wednesday.
Dr. Lauren Smith, the interim public health commissioner, said in an interview after a meeting of the state Public Health Council that her agency has “a lot of operational challenges” to confront before dispensaries could open, including the development of an interactive, online database that will allow police to check whether patients have been authorized by their physicians to use marijuana. Physicians would also be required to enter information about the amount of marijuana recommended for each patient.
“We are having to develop from scratch regulatory oversight at the same time an industry is developing from scratch,” Smith said.
“We need a thorough, thoughtful review process,” she said. “To do it right, it’s going to take time.”
For more than two hours Wednesday, Public Health Department staff members detailed the agency’s 45 pages of draft regulations to the Public Health Council, an appointed body of academics and health advocates that is slated to vote on the rules May 8. That would clear the way for the rules to go into effect by the end of May.
Iyah Romm, special advisor to the health commissioner, told the council that the answers to many of their questions had not been worked out and that the agency will address the concerns through a “subregulation” process after the panel’s May vote.
Among concerns is the plan to require medical marijuana dispensaries to test their products for contamination, including heavy metals and pesticides, even though specialists say it is easier to mandate testing than to do it reliably.
Another issue is whether dispensaries will be required to set aside money to compensate any patients harmed by a product. Federal regulations against medical marijuana could make it difficult for companies to obtain liability insurance.
Voters approved a ballot referendum in November legalizing marijuana for medical use in the state, and that measure required the Department of Public Health to issue regulations to implement the law.
Smith said the Public Health Department has no staff to oversee the medical marijuana program and would depend on money raised from dispensary licensing fees, which have not yet been set, to hire personnel.
Lack of staff was a concern raised by council member Helen Caulton-Harris, Springfield’s health and human services director. The draft regulations say the Public Health Department will inspect the facilities, including those that produce and sell edible marijuana products, such as candies and cookies.
Typically, local boards of health inspect food establishments in their communities. Harris said that in her experience, when a local business, such as a massage parlor or a barber shop, falls under state jurisdiction for routine inspections, things fall through the cracks.
“A lot of times, because of staffing shortages, those inspections don’t happen in a timely manner,” Harris said.
The state’s draft rules allow communities to pass local regulations for the dispensaries and assess local fees, as long as they do not conflict with state laws.
Among the provisions not included in the draft rules is reciprocity with other states, so patients certified for medical marijuana use in Massachusetts may not be protected from prosecution elsewhere.
A few states, such as Michigan and Arizona, allow out-of-state patients with proper registration cards to possess marijuana in their states, but most do not, and that has caused some problems, said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit that advocates for research and medical use of marijuana.
“It’s a question we get a lot from patients: ‘I am traveling and can I take my medicine?’ ” Sherer said. “Unfortunately, the answer often is, at your own risk.”