BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts voters have overwhelmingly approved a move to legalize medical marijuana, yet questions remain over how distribution will be regulated and whether the state can stop abuses.
The law approved through Question 3 on Tuesday's election ballot eliminates civil and criminal penalties for the use of marijuana by people with cancer, Parkinson's Disease, AIDS and other conditions determined by a doctor. It will create nonprofit treatment centers to grow and provide marijuana to patients or their caregivers.
Opponents say they are concerned that the state Department of Public Health, which is supposed to regulate the treatment centers, will not be able to prevent abuses. The department has been criticized in recent months for a lack of oversight at a drug-testing lab that was shut down in August after a chemist allegedly acknowledged mishandling evidence and faking test results. The state pharmacy board, under the auspices of DPH, has also come under scrutiny in a fungal meningitis outbreak linked to a steroid distributed by a compounding pharmacy in Framingham.
"They have had some documented problems and they are working very hard to address those, but those are major undertakings and now this is thrown at them as well. It's a lot of work in a relatively short period of time," said state Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, an opponent of the law.
"I just think the law was poorly written and is ripe for exploitation," he said.
The law, which will take effect Jan. 1, calls for the DPH to issue a set of regulations within 120 days after that. The DPH must decide what amount of marijuana constitutes the 60-day supply patients can get for their personal use, register patients and caregivers, register treatment centers that will distribute the marijuana; and register the treatment center's personnel.
"The Department will work closely with health care and public safety officials to develop smart and balanced policies and procedures over the coming months. We will work carefully, learn from other states' experiences and put a system in place that is right for Massachusetts," Dr. Lauren Smith, the department's interim commissioner, said in a statement Wednesday.
The law limits the number of centers to no more than 35 in 2013, but says the DPH could allow more after that.
Supporters say the law has built-in safeguards that will prevent Massachusetts from encountering the problems seen in California and Colorado, where hundreds of marijuana dispensaries have opened and sparked complaints about increased crime and other social problems.