New medical marijuana law leaves questions unanswered
Jon Sheeley, the owner of the Hempest with a sign that greets customers at the Hempest in Northampton.
Purchase photo reprints »
A sign that greets customers at the Hempest in Northampton.
Purchase photo reprints »
Jon Sheeley, the owner of the Hempest with Marijuana paraphernalia.
Purchase photo reprints »
The Hempest owner Jon Sheeley, says he is considering taking steps to open a medical marijuana dispensary in his Main Street shop in downtown Nortahmpton. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — While medical marijuana dispensaries are now legal in Massachusetts, state officials are still working to determine where they will be located and how they will be regulated.
State law authorizes up to five dispensaries per county, up to a total of 35 in the state, but the Department of Public Health has a year to determine how the dispensaries will be established and run. Authorities expect the first dispensary to open early in 2014.
Meanwhile, the owner of at least one city business says he is thinking about establishing a medical marijuana dispensary.
John Sheeley, owner of The Hempest on Main Street, said his store has a central location and plenty of space. In addition, Sheeley said, The Hempest is staffed by people who are proponents of industrial hemp production and believe in the medicinal qualities of marijuana.
But he said there are questions that must be answered, such as whether city zoning regulations allow such dispensaries and whether the community might block their establishment.
“I don’t see Northampton going in that direction,” Sheeley said, noting the public support the medical marijuana law received.
The law, passed by ballot initiative in the November election, allows physicians to certify patients with certain debilitating physical or mental ailments to use the drug, and to possess a 60-day supply.
The initiative passed with 63 percent approval statewide, 81 percent approval in Northampton, 70 percent in Easthampton, 67 percent in Hadley and 83 percent in Amherst, according to figures published on Boston.com.
Until dispensaries open, patients who qualify as medical marijuana users will have two options for obtaining it, said Bill Downing, treasurer of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). They can either grow their own plants or designate a caregiver to do so on their behalf.
Downing said the DPH has 120 days to establish guidelines about how much medical marijuana can be grown for each patient, how the plants should be stored and secured and where they can be grown.
In order to legally grow marijuana before the DPH issues its regulations, Downing said, a grower must prove that the plants are for medicinal use for specific patients.
Downing said growers should post copies outside the growing area of all pertinent paperwork from the certifying physician. Such paperwork will temporarily serve as the official patient identification that will likely be required by the DPH.
According to the law, approved patients may grow their own medical marijuana or obtain it from a caregiver if they cannot access a state-approved dispensary or can demonstrate financial hardship.
Downing said the law requires that medical marijuana be grown in enclosed, locked areas, but he added that details are scant. It’s unclear if a fenced-off outdoor area with a locking gate would meet that requirement, for instance.
“That’s something DPH is going to have to determine,” he said.
The law also doesn’t define what a 60-day supply of medical marijuana consists of.
Downing estimates it would take about 20 to 25 plants per patient to provide a steady 60-day supply. But he said variables like differences in plant yields, losses to environmental hazards and variations in potency can all impact that number.
Downing said he hopes the new law won’t restrict outdoor growing, which he said is more economical and environmentally friendly than indoor cultivation.
He said medical marijuana can be grown successfully without prior cultivation experience.
The requirements are “a seed, dirt and sunshine,” Downing said. “If you can grow a tomato, you can grow marijuana.”
More sophisticated growing methods are only of concern to marijuana growers trying to produce potent strains in large quantities for profit, he said.
Michael Cutler, a Northampton attorney, said the law is intended to enable patients to benefit immediately from the relief medical marijuana offers (see related story, Page A1).
He called the federal government’s policy banning medical marijuana “ostrich-like,” and said its refusal to acknowledge any medical benefit is “like insisting the moon is made of green cheese.”
Cutler also dismissed the notion that the presence of legal medical marijuana dispensaries increases the use of illegal marijuana by adolescents. He said there is no significant change in adolescent use rates in states where medical marijuana has been approved.
Law enforcement concerns
Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said that while he does not want to see people in pain denied medication that would help, he is concerned that the medical marijuana law is vague. He said specific regulations often don’t get resolved until legislators clarify the laws or precedent is set in court cases.
The amount of marijuana that each patient will be allowed is not the only aspect of concern, Sienkiewicz said. He believes there also needs to be a way to monitor the number of medical marijuana certifications physicians provide to make sure the drug isn’t being over-prescribed.
Downing said that growers, caregivers and dispensaries will likely face no interference from federal agencies as long as they comply with the state law.
Massachusetts is the 17th state to pass a medical marijuana law. Colorado and Washington have passed laws allowing for recreational use of the drug. As more states approve marijuana-friendly measures, Downing said, the likelihood of the Drug Enforcement Administration interfering with law-abiding users and providers decreases.
Sheeley, of The Hempest, said Massachusetts is taking time to develop regulations that will avoid problems that arose in other states with medical marijuana laws.
California, which passed its medical marijuana law in 1996, cracked down on dispensaries in late 2011 after federal authorities claimed that some were little more than fronts for widespread drug trafficking, according to a 2011 CBS News story.
“We have the benefit that we are not the first state doing this,” Dr. Lauren Smith, interim DPH commissioner, told the Associated Press. “There are 17 other states that have done this, including some neighbors, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, so we don’t have to do this completely in the dark.”
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said he’s holding off on crafting regulations at a municipal level until the state provides more guidance.
He said the law doesn’t say how dispensaries should be categorized under zoning regulations — as pharmacies, medical facilities, storefronts or a new category.
Narkewicz also said it’s unclear whether a city will derive any financial benefit from having a medical marijuana dispensary.
“Obviously we’ll be watching this closely,” he said.
So far the city has received no applications to open a dispensary, Narkewicz said. It’s unclear whether licenses will be issued by the state or municipalities, he said.
There are also questions about how the law will affect municipal employees.
Some positions, especially those in public safety, Narkewicz said, require drug testing. It’s unclear if that requirement would apply to a city employee who is legally using medical marijuana, he said.
Narkewicz said the state usually solicits comments from municipalities to address such issues pertaining to new laws.
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com.