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Between the Lines: Pot Rules

State health officials float new regs for medical marijuana.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Mass. Department of Public Health has released a draft set of regulations for the medical use of marijuana in the state. Sixty-three percent of voters approved the new law on a November ballot question.

That ballot question included a provision that DPH come up with the regulations by May. The draft rules incorporate public input gathered by the department this winter, and address such issues as patient eligibility, security at dispensaries and safety testing of the product. They include a definition of the 60-day supply allowed under the law, tight restrictions on access for patients under 18, and a requirement that treatment centers cultivate their own marijuana to allow “uniform seed-to-sale control and maximized security.”

The draft regulations do not expand on what constitutes the “debilitating conditions” that, under the language of the ballot question, make a patient eligible for medical marijuana, instead opting to “[leave] that important decision to physicians and their patients.”

DPH also says it will not interfere with municipalities’ rights to pass zoning restrictions on treatment centers. Since the law’s passage, some municipalities have attempted to ban treatment centers in their communities. But last month, Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that such bans were illegal because they would undermine the intent of the state law.

“The Act’s legislative purpose could not be served if a municipality could prohibit treatment centers within its borders, for if one municipality could do so, presumably all could do so,” the AG ruled, adding that cities and towns could pass more limited restrictions. The law allows a maximum of 35 centers in the first year (DPH can add more in the future), with at least one, but no more than five, per county.

Matthew Allen, executive director of the Mass. Patient Advocacy Alliance, which worked for the law’s passage, told the Advocate he can’t comment yet on the specific recommendations, as his group is still collecting feedback from its members. But Allen praised DPH for being responsive to public input, adding, “From the patients’ perspective these draft regulations look mostly positive. However, we continue to look at the details to ensure that they do not restrict safe access for patients.”

Some supporters of the law have raised concerns about a proposed requirement that doctors undergo training before they can recommend medical marijuana for patients, as well as a recommendation that patients not be allowed to get marijuana from more than one dispensary. Karen Munkacy, a physician who advocated for the law’s passage, told the Daily Chronic website that she supports doctors’ learning more about medical marijuana but worries “about any regulation that would create additional obstacles for physicians who want to incorporate this medicine into their practice.”

The Mass. Medical Society had opposed the passage of the ballot question, saying there was a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating the medical benefits of marijuana. “We’re a proponent of evidence-based medicine,” MMS President Richard Aghababian told the Advocate last fall, adding that the group would like the federal government to ease restrictions on the clinical testing of marijuana. “We’re not going to get ahead of the science,” he said.

In a recent statement, Aghababian praised the DPH’s draft regulations as “thoughtful and responsible,” saying they “take into account many of our major concerns, especially those relative to definitions of the physician-patient relationship, qualifying patient, and certifying physician” and “[allow] for physician judgment in determining what conditions may qualify for medical marijuana.” The MMS still calls for additional clinical research on the drug, he added.

The DPH will take public comments on the proposed regulations through April 20. (The document is available at www.mass.gov/medicalmarijuana.) The department will also hold several public hearings, including one at the Look Park Garden House, 300 North Main St. in Florence, on Friday, April 19 at 10 a.m.•

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