In an attempt to narrow down the application count to 35, the Department of Public Health approved 158 out of 181 marijuana dispensaries on Sept. 23 to move on to the next step of being licensed to sell medical marijuana legally.
“This is a very competitive process, and we required applicants to meet high standards to advance,” said DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett in a press release on Sept. 23. “We are fortunate that Massachusetts has a large field of serious applicants, who are capable of making a significant investment to benefit qualified patients and safeguard communities.”
The DPH will assign a committee that will score each dispensary through a system based on ability to meet the health needs of other patients, appropriateness of the location, geographical distribution, local support and public safety. The committee will proceed to select 35 dispensaries that they will place throughout Massachusetts, according to the release.
Heidi Heilman, president of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, a group trying to limit the regulation of medicinal marijuana, said they are working with municipalities about zoning the marijuana dispensaries in a way that limits their access in the Commonwealth.
“We are very concerned about use access to medical marijuana for young people, so we are really concerned about the zoning ordinances that municipalities put in place, and we caution localities to arrange for appropriate zoning mandates that will limit access to marijuana and divert marijuana [usage],” she said
Heilman said she believes many patients who enter these dispensaries intend to use marijuana in a recreational manner rather than for medicinal purposes.
“We know from other states that less than 3 percent of medical marijuana cardholders have life-debilitating illnesses,” she said. “Now we’re seeing in Massachusetts dispensaries coming in from Colorado and California to set up big businesses to capitalize on a young consumer base that will eventually become life-long dependents on their product.”
Although MAPA is against the appearance of marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, she said the organization does support the way the DPH has handled the dispensary selection process.
“We believe the public health departments has done the best job that is can do given the parameters of this law,” Heilman said. “The DPH is in the business of preventing substance abuse, not promoting it, and given the highly political nature of this issue, it’s a tough thing to navigate, especially for publically funded organization.”
Bill Downing, treasurer of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition. an organization working to support the legalization of marijuana, said he thinks the DPH is being conservative about the marijuana dispensary certification process.
“The Department of Health is extremely cautious to such a degree that it’s almost just ridiculous,” he said. “They are treating cannabis as though it were a really dangerous drug like Oxycontin or something like that, when the truth is it’s the very safest therapeutic substance known to humans.”
Despite the way legalization is being handled, Downing said he is thankful the process is on its way.
“It’s being handled and that’s a good thing,” he said. “We want marijuana law to be properly enacted, and it seems to be progressing in some action.”
Some residents of Massachusetts said they agreed with dispensaries being built in the Commonwealth.
Oliver Ashman, 20, resident of Dorchester, said he did not understand why there was so much controversy surrounding the dispensaries.
“I don’t think it [marijuana dispensaries] should arouse so much controversy — they have liquor stores on every corner,” he said. “They should be able to put them wherever they want.”
Rich Jones, a bartender from Malden, said he looks forward to recreational marijuana being legal.
“I’m for it,” he said. “I like to smoke it once in a while … it would be nice not to have to worry about buying it off of these little kids that put powder in it and stuff.”
Cheryl Hennebry, 48, resident of Boston, said she feared the dispensaries were more to make money than anything else.
“I think that a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon to own the dispensaries and make money off of it,” she said. “You have to have $500,000 just to open a store and buy the license … so I think it’s more of a money thing and I think it’s getting out of hand.”