Massachusetts medical marijuana law scrutinized


The medical marijuana referendum was overwhelmingly passed by voters on Nov. 4, but city and state officials will have the final say on how the marijuana is dispensed in communities across the state.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who represents the 4th Berkshire District, said the Leg islature will likely "tighten" language in the law to ensure that proper safeguards are attached to the state initiative.

Many say the medical marijuana referendum, as written, leaves the door open to exploitation of pot.

"I think it's poorly written, but that is the will of the voters," Pignatelli said.

Lawmakers "now have the obligation and the responsibility to implement restrictions for law enforcement and the medical field and make sure [marijuana] does not go to people who will put the drugs in the wrong hands," he said.

The Pittsfield Police Department is awaiting important details from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the agency charged with addressing registration and administrative fees associated with opening medical marijuana treatment centers. These dispensaries would be allowed to grow, process and provide marijuana to patients or their caregivers.

These details include how much marijuana a patient could be provided for a 60-day medical supply; the administrative process and fees for registering a treatment center; and the regulatory framework for which patients with a verified financial hardship -- or other permissable reason -- will be allowed to grow a 60-day supply of medical marijuana on their property.

In Pittsfield, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and City Council President Kevin Sherman said that there will be discussion with the city solicitor on whether the zoning ordinance regulates where a medical marijuana treatment center can be placed.

Bianchi -- who said the city has been approached with inquiries about a center within city limits -- said that it was too early to know if it would be an agenda item on a council meeting, but he said that the health and zoning committees are likely to discuss the new law.

"We're in the natural process of researching the effects on the city," Sherman said. "It doesn't mean anything bad or good. There are a lot of experts coming to collaborate on this. It's on our radar."

There are 35 licenses for nonprofit dispensaries allowed statewide under the law. There are also punishments against those who violate medical use requirements, which include up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $500. Fraudulent use of a registration for the sale, distribution or trafficking could be punished by up to five years in state prison.

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Still, Pignatelli said the Legislature -- likely sometime after the law's implementation on Jan. 1 -- will "tighten" up the "very loose and open-ended" language in the policy.

Pignatelli pointed out that an age restriction with parental consent should be included.

He also said more detailed language -- beyond the list of diseases listed -- is needed to ensure that medical marijuana is limited to a handful of conditions and not widely distributed.

The Department of Public Health is supposed to regulate the treatment centers, but Pignatelli said that with upcoming holidays and internal issues surrounding a chemist who allegedly mishandled drug evidence the department will not have a lot of time.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Org anization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML, of Wash ington, D.C., said that he has heard from "dozens and dozens and dozens" of people inquiring about starting treatment centers in Amherst, Cambridge, Northampton and other Massachusetts cities.

St. Pierre, who was raised in Massachusetts and attended Amherst College, said that the Massachusetts medical marijuana initiative incorporates best-practice concepts, which should allow for a successful implementation.

St. Pierre specifically stated that important elements include specifically stating what illnesses would be allowed for medical marijuana use, incorporating state government in regulating the industry, and specifying a certain number of business licenses.

According to St. Pierre, Massachusetts is the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana. Two states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

In 2008, Massachusetts de criminalized possession of marijuana in amounts under 1 ounce.

But that medical marijuana will be legal in Massachusetts won't guarantee that a medical treatment center will thrive, St. Pierre said.

St. Pierre said that local community support would play a strong role in whether a business is able to survive over the long haul.


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