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2014: Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Reality In MA

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As 2014 nears, medical marijuana is closer to a reality in Massachusetts.

In 2012, commonwealth voters overwhelmingly opened the door to the medical use of marijuana. Throughout the past year, the state’s Department of Public Health, local governments and dispensary organizers have held public hearings and forums all while working toward the anticipated unveiling of 35 state licenses in January 2014. In May, the DPH set final regulations to award at least one dispensary license in each of the state’s 14 counties, but no more than five. About a third of the state’s municipalities have placed moratoriums on the drug sites, with Springfield being the largest so far. However, Pittsfield, the largest city in Berkshire County, is keeping its doors open.

“It is the law,” Mayor Dan Bianchi said. “It is intended to help people with medical issues. So if we have a well-functioning center and it’s in a place that is zoned properly it can be an enhancement to a community, not a determent.”

In June, the city capped the number of allowed dispensaries at three. In November it offered generic letters of non-opposition to go along with DPH applications utilized by four groups that expressed interest in siting in Pittsfield. Manna Wellness, Inc. has proposed building a new facility to house a dispensary about four miles from downtown. Nial DeMena is Manna’s director of operations.

“We are building the first ever LEED-certificated dispensary with a focus on sustainable and renewable energies and design,” he said. “That has never been done period. I think that is going to bring a lot of new energy sector businesses into Pittsfield to work with us.”

Meanwhile, the city’s community development board has given the initial go-ahead to Total Health and Wellness, Inc. The group plans to renovate a building four miles from downtown on the other side of the city. Total Health and Wellness has also expressed interest in operating in North Adams, where the city’s community development committee rejected a moratorium proposed by Mayor Richard Alcombright. He says he wanted to make sure city planners had enough time to become familiar with the state requirements.

“This is in no way is meant to be something that would in any way, shape or form set a ban on anything,” Alcombright said. “We don’t want to do that. I would welcome it, located in the right location.

The medical community has expressed some concerns over the finalized medical marijuana regulations, however. The Massachusetts Medical Society, while largely pleased with the DPH regulations, said some “raise concerns.” Speaking to WAMC in May, Bill Ryder of the MMS said that the regulations’ plan to create a public database that would include information on physicians that prescribe medical marijuana could result in patient doctor shopping.

“This is something that should be done between a patient and their treating physician as part of their normal treatment,” Ryder said. “It shouldn’t be that people seek out people who specialize in this kind of area.”

Greenhouse Dispensary Inc. also plans to site in Berkshire County, while Baystate Alternative Healthcare Inc. has pulled back on its interest in Pittsfield. Baystate is also looking at other sites in western Massachusetts. 158 applications are in the running for the 35 licenses expected to be announced by the end of January.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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