By Marco White, news correspondent

State health officials announced plans on Wednesday to drastically revamp the licensing  process of medical marijuana dispensaries.

“This administration inherited a process where dispensaries were scored and judged in a group before applying,” Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) Director Scott Zoback said. “Under this new process, the dispensaries will be judged to see if they meet standards before moving on. We expect this new process to be quicker, more transparent and more efficient.”

Medical marijuana has been legal in Massachusetts since 2012, though the state does not yet have any operational medical marijuana dispensaries. By contrast, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that there are over 450 medical marijuana dispensaries operating in Los Angeles alone since medical marijuana was legalized in California in 1996.

State officials, perspective dispensary owners and patients alike have long criticized the existing licensing process, although there are obstacles to getting dispensaries ready to provide patients with cannabis.

“It’s a very time-consuming process not only dealing with the state but also negotiating with individual towns, hiring boards, boards of health, security with police departments,” Jim Kurnick of the MassMedicum Corporation, one of the many organizations vying for a medical marijuana license, said.

One of the few companies that received a license, William Noyes Webster Foundation Inc., has been unable to cultivate the amount of marijuana necessary to serve registered patients because the demand is so high due to the lack of licensed growers.

In 2014, Alternative Therapies Group in Salem received the first license to grow medical cannabis, and New England Treatment Access (NETA) received the second earlier this month. Neither group has an operational dispensary yet. However, NETA will soon begin growing cannabis at a site in Franklin according to a Massachusetts Health and Human Services press release. There are currently 13 other applicants in an inspection phase awaiting approval to cultivate cannabis.

Under Massachusetts’ medical marijuana laws, patients who have registered with the state may cultivate plants for personal use or may have a registered caregiver grow it for them.

“Right now, caregivers are only allowed to grow for one patient, and it’s very difficult to find a registered caregiver,” Nichole Snow, deputy director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said. “Many patients can’t grow for themselves because of their disabilities, and there is absolutely zero dispensary access at this point.”

According to the MDPH as cited by The Boston Globe, around 14,000 patients have received certification from a physician to use medical cannabis. Out of those, 7,100 have registered with the state and paid a $50 fee to legally purchase medical marijuana.

Some patients have been waiting since 2012 to receive medical cannabis and are still unable to legally purchase it in Massachusetts. Patients are eager to have access to medical marijuana dispensaries to treat symptoms of diseases like cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

“When it comes to money, the biggest obstacle has not been the delays,” Kurnick said. “The biggest obstacle is the non-profit status of the dispensaries. You can’t own a piece of a dispensary in Massachusetts.”

Many dispensaries have struggled with this requirement as they try to raise funds for the actual construction of dispensaries and cultivation sites.

Monica Bahrel, the Massachusetts public health commissioner recently appointed by Governor Charlie Baker, said in an MPDH press release on April 8 that her agency will review the requirement that dispensaries exist as nonprofits.

The new guidelines for the application process will go into effect on May 15 and review applicants on a rolling basis. The agency will treat the licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries in a process that will more closely resemble the licensing of pharmacies under the new guidelines, according to the release.

In the same press release, Bahrel stated that “registering dispensaries through a fairer, more efficient, market-driven licensure process similar to other medical facilities will allow the Commonwealth to maintain the highest standards of both [sic] public safety, care and accessibility.”

Photo courtesy David Trawin, Creative Commons