Pubdate: Tue, 17 May 2016
Source: Gloucester Daily Times (MA)
Copyright: 2016 Eagle Tribune Publishing Company
Author: Christian M. Wade, Statehouse reporter


BOSTON - The number of people treating their chronic pain, cancer
symptoms or other medical conditions with marijuana has nearly
quadrupled in a year, but a scarcity of licensed dispensaries and
supply shortages are keeping many from getting their medicine,
advocates say.

At least 24,196 patients are certified to buy medical marijuana in
Massachusetts, according to the Department of Public Health, up from
nearly 7,846 a year ago.

In April, patients bought 9,603 ounces of marijuana from six licensed
dispensaries, according to the department.

That's a sizable increase from 3,821 ounces sold by four dispensaries
in January - including one in Salem.

There is also a substantial rise in the number of physicians
registered to recommend marijuana treatment, as well as increases in
the number of caregivers seeking permission to help patients.

Advocates say those data show just a fraction of the

Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, of Uplifting Health and Wellness in Natick, is one
of 149 physicians registered to recommend marijuana as treatment for a
range of debilitating illnesses.

She sees about 600 patients and said some are still unable to get
their medicine from one of the few dispensaries that have opened so
far, either because of a lack of supply or a lengthy distance from the

"Just because we have these dispensaries doesn't mean patients are
able to get to them," she said.

Some patients struggle to pay for the treatments, which average $300
per ounce, since insurance companies don't cover it.

"There are so many problems with the way this is handled," she said.
"We're aliening people seeking treatment."

Patients must be recommended by physicians and have a medical
marijuana license, vetted by health officials, before they're even
allowed inside a dispensary to get a prescription filled. The state
also limits how much marijuana a patient can receive to 10 ounces over
a 60-day period.

Advocates said a lengthy approval process for new dispensaries is
keeping patients from getting their medicine.

"The application process is completely jammed up ... and that's not
fair to patients who've waited for years for this program to get off
the ground," said Nichole Snow, director of the Massachusetts Patient
Advocacy Alliance.

"There should be a lot more dispensaries in the pipeline, and that's
just not the case," she added.

Health officials are considering 168 applications for dispensaries,
several of which are likely to be approved.

Snow said nonprofits that have applied to open the facilities have
invested millions of dollars in real estate and other expenses, with
little to show for it. She's concerned that they might back out.

"They're essentially throwing money into a black hole with no idea if
they will ever be able to open," she said.

Locally, Happy Valley Ventures has acquired space in Gloucester's
Blackburn Industrial Park with an eye toward building a medical
marijuana dispensary and potential cultivation facility there.

Snow's group wants the state to extend the 12-month application
process by six months, so that groups waiting for approval don't have
to re-apply every year and pay the $1,500 fee.

Health officials said they are working to certify more dispensaries
and growing operations.

Scott Zoback, spokesman for the Department of Public Health, said
regulators expect at least 98 percent of the population will live
within 25 miles of a registered dispensary, based on actual and
proposed locations now being considered.

"The goal is to have dispensary access around the state," he

Voters in November 2012 overwhelmingly approved a law allowing as many
as 35 dispensaries to grow and sell marijuana for patients with
conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.

Delays in starting the program led to an outcry from medical marijuana
advocates. Last year, health officials streamlined the application
process to allow dispensaries to be approved more quickly, in a way
similar to the process for licensing health care facilities.

The state has opened a call center, with five full-time employees
helping to register new patients, caregivers who are allowed to
provide medical marijuana, as well as dispensary employees.

To date, the health department has issued only six dispensary licenses
- - including one to Alternative Therapies Group in Salem.

Others were issued to Patriot Care Corporation in Lowell, New England
Treatment Access Inc. for dispensaries in Northampton and Brookline,
and In Good Health in Brockton to grow marijuana for medicinal use.
Compassionate Center, in Ayer, opened in November.

State officials point out that the medical marijuana program, which
ran a $1.17 million deficit in fiscal year 2015, will end the June 30
fiscal year with a surplus of $320,610.

The state budgeted $3.3 million in revenue this year, from application
and licensing fees that range from $1,500 to $50,000.

But Snow said the program could end up in a deficit because funding
from application renewal fees might not be paid if groups looking to
open dispensaries decide to quit the process.

"They're expecting money from fees that they might not collect," she
said. "That doesn't make any sense."
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D