Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File
One delivery service offers gluten-free marijuana brownies. Another promises a free marijuana-laced lollipop with each order. A third touts trained “caregivers” and delivery until 4 a.m.
These marijuana delivery services — the objects of an unsuccessful crackdown by Massachusetts health officials two years ago — were expected to fade away once the first state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries opened last year. Instead, they have proliferated.
More than two dozen of these Internet-based services are now openly advertising long menus of marijuana strains and edibles, plus prices and user reviews, the Globe found.
The cat-and-mouse dance between the services and regulators intensified last week when the popular website Leafly, which features marijuana news and product reviews, abruptly removed online listings for more than 20 Massachusetts delivery services after patient advocates and the Globe questioned their legality.
Unlike dispensaries — whose owners must pay hefty licensing fees, submit to background checks, and test their products for contaminants — delivery services operate without oversight. They call themselves caregivers, a designation they say allows them to supply patients.
This booming cottage industry uses the Internet to offer on-demand delivery to anyone who shows a state-issued marijuana card. But in online discussion forums, several customers claimed to have used fake medical recommendations printed from the Internet to have marijuana delivered by the services.
Operators say they are exempt from Massachusetts rules that prohibit caregivers from supplying more than one patient at a time and that limit their compensation. State officials strongly disagree, saying only registered dispensaries can sell marijuana.
Leaders of Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, a group representing medical marijuana patients, said they were troubled by complaints from patients about subpar products and tense encounters with gun-toting drivers. Earlier this year, the advocates urged Department of Public Health officials to rein in the delivery outfits, but said they were largely ignored.
On Thursday, health officials took another tentative step toward enforcement, telling Leafly the delivery services listed on its site were operating illegally.
“Caregivers cannot sell marijuana or profit from its distribution,” the health agency said in a statement. “Anyone distributing marijuana outside of state regulations may be subject to law enforcement action.”
Before learning of the department’s stance, Leafly had argued that Massachusetts law permits “personal care attendants” to deliver marijuana to registered patients. The Seattle company, which calls itself “the world’s largest cannabis information resource” and says that millions use its app and website, later suspended the listings. But it questioned whether delivery services are really banned under state rules.
“Leafly is still seeking further clarification,” the company said in a statement. “The [department’s] response did not provide guidance beyond what was already published on [its] website.”
Patient advocates attribute the continued popularity of the delivery services in part to supply problems that patients say they encounter at some of the state’s six dispensaries. Delivery services also help patients with disabilities and patients who are too ill to travel to dispensaries.
High prices at dispensaries present another issue. Some delivery services sell marijuana for $100 an ounce less than the dispensaries do, according to menus the delivery services publish online.
But patient advocates acknowledge they face a quandary. While worried that patients using delivery services may be vulnerable to theft and questionable products, advocates also want increased access to marijuana.
“We want the delivery people to be licensed and funneled through the proper channels,” said Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance.
She said the state’s registration system is too cumbersome for some patients to use, and there aren’t enough licensed dispensaries to meet demand. She pointed to health department data showing that while 22,500 patients have registered with the agency’s medical marijuana program, fewer than 9,000 have shopped in dispensaries. That means most are getting their marijuana elsewhere — on the street, from legitimate caregivers, or through the delivery services.
A state health department spokesman said the agency is aware of patients’ concerns.
Leafly did not respond to questions about how — or if — it vetted the delivery services that had been advertising on its site. The same delivery outfits are still listed on similar websites.
A spokeswoman said Leafly’s removal of the services last week sparked a backlash from customers.
“Leafly has been contacted by dozens of patients who are extremely upset and concerned about how they are going to access their medicine,” the spokeswoman wrote. “Many of these patients are elderly or disabled.”
At the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center last month, a delivery outfit calling itself Boston Best Buds, which advertised on Leafly, set up a booth as part of the New England Cannabis Convention. A man who would give his name only as Ray invited anyone who claimed to have a state-issued medical marijuana card to enter a raffle for a free ounce of marijuana.
When a reporter asked Ray if his service was legal, he initially said it was. But when pressed, he conceded it was a “gray area.”
“Are we an unregulated service? Absolutely!” Ray said. “Does the state need to add regulations? One hundred and ten percent yes. There’s nothing I would love more than to be completely within the system.”
Ray boasted that at $280 an ounce, his marijuana was selling for substantially less than at the dispensaries. And, he said, Boston Best Buds offers a far greater variety of strains.
Ray said he initially delivered the marijuana himself, but now employs two drivers whom he pays $20 per delivery. He said he gets his inventory from “small gardens in [patients’] houses, guys growing in their closet, growing in their old kid’s [empty] room, stuff like that.”
He referred further questions to his lawyer, abruptly packed up his booth, and left the convention center.
“What Ray’s doing isn’t necessarily within the confines of the law at the moment, but that may very well change in short order,” Rudolph Miller, Ray’s attorney, said in a phone interview later. “It’s a newly developing landscape that’s subject to a great deal of interpretation.”
Miller declined to provide Ray’s last name but insisted Ray was “trying to be as transparent as possible.”
“He attends hearings at the State House, trying to get what he does recognized,” Miller said.
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