There is no doubt a lot of work ahead for state lawmakers and local officials who will be grappling with how to implement the new medical marijuana law that drew overwhelming voter approval across Cape Ann and across the state in November.
To that end, the Massachusetts Municipal Association — essentially a lobbying coalition of city and town officials — makes a good case in calling for a six-month delay in the law to give state and local governments a chance to develop a fair, clear and coordinated set of rules. Given the details still to be worked out, extending the deadline by a half year seems like a good idea. Delaying implementation any longer, however, would usurp the will of the voters.
The primary issue to be ironed out centers on how and where medical marijuana will be managed and distributed.
The law, as approved by voters, calls for as many as 35 marijuana dispensaries to be set up next year, with at least one but no more than five in each county, including Essex. The state Department of Public Health will be in charge of regulating medical marijuana and deciding on such details as how the dispensaries will operate, how much pot they can dispense and where the drug will come from. Under the voters’ legislation, the rules are supposed to be in place by April.
To that end, municipal, health and law enforcement officials — in all Cape Ann’s communities — have at least begun discussing the placement or handling of any “dispensaries.” Down the line, leaders in Peabody, Danvers and Salem have already begun grappling with the question of where to put the dispensaries within their community zoning system.
Peabody, in fact, may attempt to ban them outright. But not only would an outright ban likely face an expensive legal challenge, it would also be a slap in the face to the more than 14,000 city residents who voted in favor of medical marijuana accessibility, and that’s a dilemma cities and towns across the state will likely face as well.
While no community specifically has a zoning district allowing marijuana sales, here is one clear solution that any and all cities and towns might consider: that’s the idea of having licensed pharmacies serve as dispensary points for medicinal marijuana.
The simple fact is that existing pharmarcies already have systems in place for securing, verifying and dispensing all sorts of medications — including oxycodone, Oxycontin and other drugs that have illicit street uses and values. There’s no reason to believe they would not also be able to effectively handle medicinal marijuana — which, lest we forget, will have to be signed off upon by a physician through a patient prescription.
Could businesses do the same? Could up to 35 new businesses spring up across the state as local medical marijuana dispensaries? Perhaps, and they might prove effective, as long as they could maintain databases tracking patients and physicians. But there is a sense that dispensing medicinal marijuana will also require the use of health care protocols that are already the domain of pharmacies across the state. That again should put pharmacies — whether corporate, independent, or directly affiliated with hospitals or other health care facilities — at the head of the list for dispensary eligibility.
As state and local officials move forward with all of this, it’s important for all to keep in mind that they are not alone. A number of other states, including neighboring Rhode Island, already have medical marijuana laws in place, have dealt with these issues in the past, and might provide a model pathway for implementing the voters’ wish as closely as possible.
But when it comes to deciding which types of business licenses or businesses are best equipped to handle this task, they may find the most effective at dispensing and tracking a newly recognized “prescription drug” are the ones who are already doing it for many others.