Matt Allen, the man behind the state’s medical marijuana law, is all done holding his tongue.
Almost two years after voters passed that ballot question, Allen notes, this state isn’t even close to having, in his felicitously turned phrase, “seeds in the ground.”
The law envisioned up to 35 nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries, with at least one in each county, ready to go — or grow — by the end of 2013. Almost nine months into 2014, after a process full of, um, potholes, 11 marijuana dispensaries have been provisionally certified, with half the counties uncovered. Even by the administration’s estimate, the first of those won’t make it through the final review and start operating until early next year.
Nor does the Patrick administration have up and running the online program to let police and dispensaries verify that patients are eligible to possess or grow medical marijuana. But when Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, has tried to inject a little urgency into the process, the message has always been the same: Be patient.
Although he voted twice for Patrick, his patience is now officially exhausted. Indeed, he’s come to think Patrick’s possible national ambitions figure into the delays.
“There is so much the administration could have done to move things forward,” he told me. “At this point, with the lack of movement, I think it is politics. The perception is that it would be more convenient for them to slow walk this until the governor gets out of office.”
Not so, asserts Health and Human Services spokesman Alec Loftus. “We want to take our time and get this right,” he says.
About the best one can say to that is that the administration is one for two.
The Department of Public Health and its contractors bungled the application process, resulting in some embarrassing revelations — and, of course, delays. Against the backdrop of his rocky second-term record, Patrick’s team seems to have put the desire to avoid more bad headlines above the impetus to provide timely help for those who could benefit from medical marijuana.
For example, even if one buys that two years is an appropriate period to get a limited number of dispensaries operating, another part of the law could be helping patients right now.
That section allows individual medical-marijuana growers, or “caregivers,” to supply patients who have a doctor’s letter. Problem: The Department of Public Health has issued regulations rendering that provision hard to use. Some other states let individual growers supply multiple patients. For example, Arizona, California, Maine, Michigan, and Rhode Island all allow caregivers to grow for as many as five patients. Montana allows three.
But the Patrick administration has stipulated that one grower can only supply one patient. Given the costs of a growing operation, the Department of Public Health’s stricture makes that provision nearly useless, says Allen.
Further, when Allen tried to bring five patients and caregivers in to meet with Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz to discuss the problem, the meeting was first canceled on short notice. Although it was rescheduled for Aug. 20, when the group showed up, the secretary would only meet with Allen. The others were left to talk to Karen van Unen, the executive director of the Department of Public Health’s medical marijuana program.
According to Loftus, the Department of Public Health’s restrictive regulation was written after a number of public meetings and consultations with law enforcement about the best way to serve patients while also keeping medical marijuana out of non-patient hands. Translation: The administration put the wishes of law enforcement above practicality for patients.
In a state where possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized, that seems excessively cautious, particularly given 1) the delay in licensing dispensaries and 2) the clear need some patients have.
One such patient is Troy Sweder of Methuen, an Air Force veteran whose service injuries have left him with neuropathic pain that marijuana helps alleviate without the side effects of the drugs the Veterans Administration has prescribed. But under the current system, marijuana is hard for him to get.
“As a Massachusetts resident, I am just very disappointed,” he says. “The state wouldn’t have to do much. There are people out there who could be caregivers until the dispensaries open.”
Allen and his group have a press conference planned for Monday to highlight their frustrations. Patrick, who arrives back in state this weekend from his latest overseas trip, should give this matter his serious attention.