BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts voters may have enthusiastically approved the legalization of medical marijuana, but that hasn't stopped communities around the state from rushing to amend their zoning regulations to make sure marijuana dispensaries are banned or restricted in their towns.
Although the law allowing the use of marijuana for patients with serious medical conditions goes into effect Jan. 1, the state Department of Public Health has until May 1 to issue regulations on who will run the dispensaries, who will work there and how they will be operated. DPH must also decide what constitutes a 60-day supply patients can receive.
While the DPH works on the regulations, some cities and towns are working to keep out dispensaries, or "pot shops" as they are often called. In Wakefield and Reading, the towns have already approved zoning changes to ban dispensaries.
"People are concerned about how broad the law was written and that the dispensaries could be used by more than just people with medical issues," said Ruth Clay, the health director for Wakefield, Reading and Melrose, a city that is also working to pass a ban on dispensaries.
Clay said her communities receive a significant amount of state and federal grants to run substance abuse programs and are concerned that having a marijuana dispensary in town could "send a mixed message to youths."
The law approved through Question 3 on the November 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.
Opponents have said they are concerned that the DPH will not be able to prevent abuses of the new law. The department has faced criticism this year for a lack of oversight at a drug-testing lab that was closed in August after a chemist allegedly acknowledged skirting lab protocols and faking test results. The state's pharmacy board, under the auspices of DPH, has also come under scrutiny in a deadly fungal meningitis outbreak linked to a steroid distributed by a compounding pharmacy in Framingham.
The DPH says it is committed to developing a thorough set of guidelines so that the state will not end up with problems seen in other states, including California and Colorado, where hundreds of dispensaries have opened and prompted complaints about misuse of medical marijuana and increased crime.
"We have the benefit that we are not the first state doing this, 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," said Dr. Lauren Smith, interim DPH commissioner.
"We can look at what has worked well and what hasn't worked well in other states and then determine what will work best here in Massachusetts."
The new law limits the number of dispensaries to no more than 35 in the first year, but says the DPH could allow more after 2013.
The state's legalization of medical marijuana has spawned an influx of consultants, attorneys and medical technology companies into Massachusetts.
Dr. Bruce Bedrick, the chief executive of MedBox Inc., opened an office in Natick soon after the ballot question was approved. His company offers consulting services and dispensing systems to people interested in opening dispensaries in Massachusetts.
The company's technology requires patients to do a fingerprint scan in order to get their doctor-prescribed quantity of marijuana. The software also allows a dispensary to track when the patient's prescription expires. Bedrick said MedBox now has more than 100 dispensing systems — which look similar to vending machines — in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Canada. Only dispensary employees have access to the boxes, which are located in a locked room in the dispensaries.
Bedrick said he has received a great deal of interest since he set up an office in Massachusetts.
"I would expect hundreds of people to apply for the (dispensary) license ultimately," Bedrick said. "It's a brand-new industry. It offers a tremendous amount of opportunity. I think this is only going to be positive for the economy of Massachusetts ... and certainly most importantly for the people who need the medicine."
Others are wary of the new industry.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association is calling for a six-month delay in implementing the law. Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith said cities and town need more time to review their local bylaws to decide if they want to pass restrictions. Beckwith said some communities may not want to ban them outright, but may decide to allow them to be located only near hospitals or away from schools.
"There are serious issues communities need to consider," Beckwith said.