Medical pot advocates fear law changes

File photoAdvocates of medical marijuana are concerned that the recreational marijuana bill being hammered out on Beacon Hill will eliminate the Department of Public Health's control over medical marijuana in favor of the Cannabis Control Commission.

BOSTON — Lisa Cole fought for years to get state approval to give medical marijuana to her 8-year-old daughter, and she searched even longer for a doctor willing to prescribe it.

Her daughter, Madison, suffers from epilepsy and uses an extract made from marijuana flowers to control seizures. Cole said the medicine has vastly improved her daughter’s condition.

“We’ve faced a lot of stigma along the way, which I understand,” she said. “But the fact is, this is a medicine that saved my daughter’s life and greatly improved the quality of it.”

With lawmakers considering major changes to the state’s new recreational marijuana law, Cole and other supporters of medicinal weed worry that a shakeup could prevent patients from getting their medicine.

The House and Senate are debating a host of changes to the voter-approved law, which allows adults 21 and older to have up to 10 ounces of the drug, and a dozen pot plants on their property.

Most of the proposed changes focus on increasing a 12 percent maximum tax rate and giving cities and towns more power to block retail pot shops, which are set to open next year.

Planned shift could hurt industry

But the proposals also would shift regulation of medical pot from the state Department of Public Health to a new cannabis control commission, which would operate similarly to the state’s casino board.

Medical marijuana advocates say that essentially lumps people who use cannabis for medicinal purposes in with those who just want to get stoned.

“This is a medical industry that has taken years to develop,” said Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which represents medical pot patients. “Now they want to change it to an adult-use industry.”

Snow said the focus on commercial pot will marginalize patients and hurt medical marijuana dispensaries that are still struggling to develop a viable industry.

That’s what happened in Washington state, she said, which effectively dismantled its medical marijuana program last year, merging it with recreational pot.

Most medical dispensaries were shut out of the recreational market, Snow said, and scores of pediatric patients couldn't get their medicine.

Four years before Massachusetts voters approved recreational pot, they agreed in November 2012 to allow up to 35 dispensaries to grow and sell marijuana for patients with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Delays in launching the program led to an outcry from medical marijuana advocates. In 2015, the state streamlined the process to allow dispensaries to win approval more quickly, in a way similar to how health care facilities are licensed.

To date, the state has only licensed 11 dispensaries — including Alternative Therapies Group in Salem. Other licenses have been issued in Lowell, Ayer, Northampton, Brookline, Quincy, Brockton and Cambridge.

Happy Valley Ventures plans to open a facility in Gloucester. Healthy Pharms has opened in Georgetown.

The health department is considering 95 applications for new dispensaries. Regulators eventually expect at least 98 percent of the state population to live within 25 miles of a dispensary, based on actual and proposed locations.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana advocates say apprehension among city and town officials about recreational pot are delaying the opening of new growing facilities and dispensaries of medical marijuana, which is exacerbating a shortage.

“We’re stuck in a holding pattern,” said Robert Proctor, chief executive officer of the Cambridge-based Elevated Access Center, which is seeking to open a medical dispensary in the state. “Everyone is waiting to see what happens with recreational.”

Pot shop, federal crackdowns

Even though retail pot shops aren’t expected to open until sometime next year, 35 communities including Ipswich and Peabody have already passed temporary bans or restrictions on those shops. Another 73 cities and towns are expected to vote on moratoriums, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Medical marijuana advocates are also concerned about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vow to crackdown on medical marijuana.

Currently the Justice Department is prohibited from using federal funds to prevent certain states "from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana." Sessions has asked congressional leaders to undo those provisions.

The number of people using marijuana in Massachusetts to treat chronic pain, cancer symptoms and other conditions continues to grow.

Nearly 37,000 patients are certified to buy medical marijuana, according to state health officials, up from nearly 26,000 a year ago.

Last month, patients bought 20,357 ounces of pot from 11 dispensaries — more than double the 11,297 ounces sold in May 2016.

To get medical pot, patients must have a doctor’s recommendation — two for pediatric patients — and a state-issued license, and they must be vetted by health officials. They’re also required pay a $50 annual registration fee.

In addition, the state caps how much pot a patient can get at 10 ounces over a 60-day period.

Cole said she worries that she’ll have to fight all over again to get approval from the state if medical and recreational marijuana are regulated together.

“It’s a medicine that should be treated as such,” she said. “We need to stay focused on the patients.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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