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State revamps marijuana licensing process

For dispensaries, goal is transparency

Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel
Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel(The Baker Administration)

State health regulators revealed an “aggressively revamped” process for licensing medical marijuana dispensaries on Wednesday, vowing to strip away the subjectivity and secrecy that they said had tainted the system previously.

Under the revised guidelines, dispensaries will be licensed in a format similar to other health care facilities, such as pharmacies, according to the state’s new public health commissioner, Dr. Monica Bharel. Each application will be judged on its merits using clear guidelines and will move forward when the company meets the overhauled standards, Bharel said.

The process being introduced by the administration of Governor Charlie Baker represents a significant overhaul of the system that was rolled out by Baker’s predecessor, former governor Deval Patrick.

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The Patrick administration required marijuana companies to compete against each other and scored them based on vague criteria, Bharel said. When some encountered problems, the entire process was frozen for months, Bharel said.

“What we have in place now is a confusing, overly lengthy process that has delayed appropriate patients from getting access,” Bharel told a meeting of the state Public Health Council, an appointed body of academics, consumer advocates, and physicians that writes health regulations.

Bharel said the problems that plagued the process under the Patrick administration were far more costly than expected, leaving her agency with a deficit of more than $1 million, mostly from information technology costs related to launching the program.

She said the department believes it has fixed those problems and “will be monitoring our finances very closely.”

“So the way we would like to move forward with this now, in this application process, is to have clear guidelines that are transparent so that everybody understands what the standards are, and it becomes easier to figure out, and determine what the next steps are,” Bharel said.

She said the revised process will be launched May 15, and will establish high safety standards, particularly for security and background checks.

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Those issues undermined the process under Patrick. The licensing system was steeped in controversy almost immediately after Patrick’s regulators awarded the first 20 provisional licenses in January 2014.

Patients, marijuana company executives, and unsuccessful applicants have complained since then that the process was mired in politics and conflicts of interest and lacked public scrutiny.

On Wednesday, patient advocates and marijuana company leaders said they hope the revamped process will shed the problems that ground everything to a halt for so long.

“The previous administration shut everybody out,” said Nichole Snow, deputy director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance. “This new information is exciting and reassuring. We just hope we are invited into the process again as patients.”

Jim Smith, a Boston attorney who represented one of the many unsuccessful applicants last year, said he is optimistic the revamped process will be freed from political influence. “This looks like a very fair and open process, and that’s all anybody should expect,” he said. “And that wasn’t the case last time.”

Smith represents a Colorado company, Good Chemistry, that had two provisional licenses, in Boston and Worcester, revoked last summer amid growing controversy about the process. Smith said Good Chemistry intends to reapply for the Worcester license but has not decided about other municipalities.

Bharel said that as her agency prepares guidelines, it will review the requirement that marijuana companies be nonprofits. Company leaders and some investors have said that requirement has hampered the licensing process and scared away investors, leaving some companies short of cash.

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Bharel also said that starting Wednesday, her agency began posting updated information on its website about the status of each of the 15 applicants granted licenses for dispensaries. The information is at www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/hcq/medical-marijuana/.

To date, the Department of Public Health has granted approvals for two dispensary companies to begin planting marijuana: one in December 2014 to Alternative Therapies Group in Salem, and the other on April 3 to New England Treatment Access Inc., to operate a dispensary in Northampton. New England Treatment Access will grow marijuana for medical use at a site in Franklin.

Thirteen other dispensaries are now provisionally certified and in the inspection phase. Those dispensaries will not need to be reviewed again under the new regulatory process.

On average, a dispensary in the inspection phase needs seven to 18 months to acquire local zoning and building permits, undergo architectural review, complete construction, and pass the required inspections, according to information posted Wednesday by the department.

The posting also stated that once regulators grant permission for a dispensary to open, officials will conduct twice-monthly inspections, one of them announced and one that is unannounced.


Kay Lazar can be reached
at Kay.Lazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.