Massachusetts medical marijuana dispensaries may open this summer


PITTSFIELD -- Medical marijuana dispensaries could open in Massachusetts by this summer now that state public health officials plan to approve final regulations this spring.

The Department of Public Health's draft regulations will be issued March 29. If approved by the Public Health Council, which reviews all health policies in Massachusetts, the rules governing marijuana dispensaries could go into effect May 24.

Attorney General Martha M. Coakley has also ruled that Massachusetts cities and towns cannot ban local dispensaries for medical marijuana. They can adopt measures to regulate and or delay dispensaries. Coakley's ruling, prompted by Wakefield's local ban on dispensaries last fall, states local bans would or will conflict with Massachusetts law.

Medical marijuana and dispensaries to distribute pot were approved by 63 percent of Bay State voters last November. A week later, Wakefield residents voted to ban dispensaries.

Complete bans on dispensaries violate the intent of the medical marijuana law, Coakley said.

Last month, the ACLU wrote Coakley urging her to rule against the Wakefield bylaw.

"The purpose of Question 3 was to legalize medical marijuana and to create a statewide system of treatment centers making it available to patients with prescriptions from their treating physicians. Wakefield's ban would thwart that purpose," said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts.

In a separate ruling, Coakley approved Burlington's moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, which prevents any centers until June 30, 2014.

Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told The Associated Press the attorney general's ruling in Burlington indicates that communities will still have a strong say over dispensaries.

"Clearly the attorney general's decision re-affirms that cities and towns do have the ability to regulate and adopt bylaws that will set conditions regarding the location or other issues of dispensaries," Beckwith said. "That in itself is good news for those communities interested in regulating or limiting where the facility can be located, for example not in a residential area, not near schools, not in a downtown commercial district."

The law permits up to 35 nonprofit dispensaries or treatment centers within the state, but no more than five can be built in any one county.

Ishver Patel, who works at Elm Street Discount Cigarettes & Variety in Pittsfield, which sells glass pipes, said he's hopeful that if a dispensary is built in the Berkshires it would increase sales.

"We only sell one every few weeks now," he said. "If we start selling more, we could have a bigger selection too."

Currently, the shop only has five glass pipes on display for sale.

Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi sent his proposal to regulate dispensaries within the city to the Community Development Board but it's still under review.

With the announcement from the Public Health Council, the proposal, drafted by city solicitor Kathleen Degnan, could be expedited with dispensary applications potentially available this summer.

During a hearing before the Public Health Council, Cheryl A. Bartlett, a deputy interim commissioner for the state Department of Public Health, spelled out the first official time frame for putting into effect medical marijuana.

Bartlett said the department will file draft regulations for medical marijuana by March 29 and will present those regulations to the Public Health Council on April 10.

"We feel it is important to put forward these regulations into the public domain as quickly as possible so as to allow perspective medical marijuana treatment center applicants sufficient time to study our regulations prior to engaging in a competitive application process this summer and fall," she said.

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