The final call on which applicants will be granted licenses to dispense medical marijuana in Massachusetts will be made by a well-qualified individual. What seems odd is the evident last-minute change that was made in this important decision-making process.

Karen van Unen, a veteran public health official, will make these decisions after receiving the recommendations of a seven-member committee named by the state Department of Public Health. Ms. van Unen, who will make her decision in her capacity as executive director of the state’s medical marijuana program, has an extensive educational background in the medical field, has served as a top executive with several Boston nonprofits and consulted with state officials when they were setting up the medical marijuana program following its approval by voters in a referendum.

Originally, the final decisions were to come from the state’s public health commissioner, but according to The Boston Globe, a DPH spokesman said that the process had changed. Regardless of the qualifications of Ms. van Unen, that change seems arbitrary given the magnitude of the decisions to be made on January 30, when the first of 35 dispensary licenses are issued.

There are 100 applicants for those licenses, three of them bidding for spots in Pittsfield and two in Great Barrington. While it may be assumed that only major cities like Springfield, Worcester or Boston will have more than one dispensary, the law does not limit the number of dispensaries in any community.


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There are many factors to consider, among them the clinic operators’ knowledge of the community, the experience of the medical professionals running the clinics, traffic issues and crime prevention. Clinics in Colorado and California have had problems with the illegal distribution of marijuana at and around some of the clinics.

These clinics can be of real benefit to people suffering from serious diseases, among them cancer, HIV/AIDS, ALS and multiple sclerosis. They can also cause real headaches for communities. Assuring that the latter doesn’t happen is initially the responsibility of the DPH committee and Ms. van Unen in recommending and choosing the best applicants for licenses. After that, it is the responsibility of cities and towns to monitor them and assure that they are helping the needy without harming the community.