Mass Med Card

Massachusetts Botched Medical Marijuana From The Beginning


grass photoGlobe – A contractor hired by the state health department to rank companies hoping to open medical marijuana dispensaries acknowledged in internal e-mails that it simply ran out of time to conduct thorough checks of some applications. Still, the health department extended the company’s contract and more than doubled its pay, records show.

A different contractor was awarded a lucrative no-bid deal to conduct in-depth background checks yet failed to detect that a couple hired by several applicants to run proposed dispensaries had lost their own marijuana business license in Colorado because of violations.

These latest revelations open a wider window onto the state’s troubled effort to grant licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries, a process so flawed that regulators spent five months untangling the mess.

A Globe review shows that the state’s licensing process went off the tracks nearly from the beginning, hobbled by too little time, too many conflicts of interest, and questionable work from highly paid contractors.

“I have heard of minor complications in other states. But I have not seen anything that raised eyebrows . . . like in Massachusetts,” said Karen O’Keefe, who tracks state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., group that lobbies to legalize marijuana.

In 2014, many states experimented with marijuana laws
A look at the new policies implemented this year that eased penalties for marijuana use or made it available to medical patients.

More than two years after Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved the medical use of marijuana, not a single dispensary has opened, despite the state’s goal of having the first marijuana companies open in summer 2014. The licensing process, which sparked more than two dozen lawsuits against the state health department, remains mired in controversy, even as officials predict the first dispensaries could open this winter.

“Delays in implementation have been devastating to patients,” said Matt Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance. “Patients are forced into unsafe situations as they continue to go to the black market in search of [marijuana] . . . being robbed, assaulted, or purchasing medicine that is not tested to be free of contaminants.”

‘I have heard of minor complications in other states. But I have not seen anything that raised eyebrows. . . . like in Massachusetts.’

The problems began almost from the earliest days.

The state hired two companies in the fall of 2013, one to review thousands of pages of documents from 100 applicants and rank the proposals, and the other to check the backgrounds of more than 600 people associated with the marijuana companies. Much of that work was squeezed between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, according to state records and interviews.

Yet neither contractor was asked to verify claims made by marijuana companies in their applications. The state’s selection process simply took the companies’ representations at face value — until that approach ran into a wall of problems, which included applicants’ misrepresentations about local support.

“Massachusetts underestimated the time commitment it would take,” said Todd Brown, vice chairman of the Department of Pharmacy and Health Systems Sciences at Northeastern University “And now it’s taking more time because they have had to backtrack.”

Brown was part of a committee appointed by the health department to recommend dispensaries for what the state calls provisional licenses, the first step to getting a full operating license. The committee based its recommendations on reviews of applications by ICF International, a Fairfax, Va., consultant hired by the health department.

Spokesmen for ICF and Mansfield-based Creative Services Inc., which conducted the background checks, declined to be interviewed about their companies’ work.

From the selection committee’s list, the department chose 20 applicants in late January for provisional dispensary licenses, and only then were sections of applicants’ proposals made public. It quickly became clear that some of the winners employed former political heavyweights, high-powered lobbyists, and people who once worked for the state health department. Additionally, former US representative William Delahunt, a close friend of the state health commissioner at the time, headed the only company selected for three provisional licenses.

Questions immediately arose about how well ICF and Creative Services scrutinized the applications and backgrounds of the companies.

ICF had signed a November 2013 contract and was to be paid no more than $247,790. But state records show that ICF — the firm that said in company e-mails it was so pressed it could not sufficiently vet applicants — twice requested more money. By March, the company’s contract nearly doubled, to $478,000, as the department realized it would need help scrutinizing applicants amid a growing public outcry.

By late June, ICF’s contract was again increased to, among other things, create “talking points” and “practice sessions” for the health department as it prepared to explain selections to the media, according to state records. ICF was also expected to participate in “routine conference calls” with the governor’s office on the selection process, the records show.

During this stretch, ICF received another contract to help design rules governing dispensaries. State records show that ICF to date has been paid $625,047 for medical marijuana-related work but is in line to receive thousands more under the pending contracts.

State health regulators said they did not seek competitive bids in a separate deal to conduct background checks on dispensary applicants because there was an existing contract with Creative Services to perform similar pre-employment screenings for a state lab. That contract was awarded to Creative Services just weeks earlier and was a much smaller job. Under that contract, Creative Services has performed only one background screening for the lab, at a cost of $212.50.

State records show that Creative Services has been paid $691,431 to date for its marijuana background checks.

But Creative Services failed to uncover court records that indicated violations forced a Colorado husband and wife to shutter their Boulder medical marijuana facility in 2012. The two were executives of companies that won provisional dispensary licenses in three Massachusetts communities. After the Colorado violations were detailed in the Globe, the companies dropped the couple and were allowed to continue in the licensing process.

Amid near-daily revelations of other problems with chosen applicants, the health department ordered more background investigations.

By the end of June, the health department dropped nearly half the applicants it had earlier selected, including the three headed by Delahunt, because of questions about his company’s financial structure.

Yet many questions remain unanswered.

A Globe public records request seeking all Department of Public Health communications regarding its management of the ICF and Creative Services contracts has been pending since September. The department has declined to respond, aside from stating that it “does not have any records responsive to that request, however, we note that [Medical Marijuana Program] executive director Karen van Unen is responsible for managing the performance of both CSI and ICF.”

Van Unen declined repeated requests for an interview about the process. The department issued a statement from her that said: “Selecting dispensaries that meet our high standards has taken more time than originally envisioned, as was the case in other states with similar programs, but making sure we are launching this brand new industry the right way for the people of Massachusetts is our top priority.”

State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, who headed a legislative inquiry into the selection process, said he still has not received clear answers from the health department.

“At the end of the day, we need greater transparency on how they made the decisions,” he said.

One area that remains clouded is the state’s scrutiny regarding conflicts of interest among former staffers.

Former health department manager Andy Epstein, a nurse who helped craft the state’s marijuana dispensary regulations before retiring last year, is the medical director for New England Treatment Access Inc. The company, which won approval to open dispensaries in Brookline and Northampton, also touted former US representative Barney Frank as its director of community and government relations until he resigned in March.

The records also show another former high-level health department staffer, Daniel Delaney, was a paid lobbyist for seven companies seeking licenses. Two of those companies won state approval, including Patriot Care, the only applicant to win licenses for three dispensaries.

Patriot Care was also the only Delaney client to name him on its state application. It also included his resume.

Delaney told the Globe that he never lobbied his former department, but rather advised clients on the regulatory process. “I can say with certainty that I never called DPH to say, ‘This is my client, can you help me out?’ ” he said.

Delaney said he left the health department, where he was legislative director of government affairs and director of strategic planning, to form a lobbying firm in June 2012, five months before voters approved marijuana for medical use, and said he followed state ethics laws.

Patriot Care initially hired former House speaker Thomas Finneran as a lobbyist, then Finneran tapped Delaney for help because of his expertise, Delaney said.

“Most of the people I worked with didn’t succeed in the marijuana application process, so I don’t think I’ve had a disproportionate success to any other lobbyist engaged in it,” he said.

Sanchez raised questions about conflicts of interest during his legislative probe, and in response, van Unen sent him a letter that said her department relied on former employees to decide whether they had any conflicts.

Many of the companies not chosen for a license have complained that the state’s selection process has been arbitrary and unfair — a theme echoed in several of the lawsuits against the health department, including one by Delahunt.

During a deposition in that suit this fall, van Unen acknowledged that her agency lacked the time to interview leaders of the marijuana companies or verify any of the claims on their applications until after the department narrowed its list to 20 for provisional licenses.

Delahunt’s suit argued the process was so flawed that part of it should be halted until the court could straighten out the dispute regarding Delahunt’s revoked licenses.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Thomas Billings declined, saying patients had already waited too long for dispensaries to open. But on one point, Billings agreed with Delahunt — state regulators had broken their own rules in the selection process.

“Few things,” Billings wrote, “erode public confidence in government like an agency’s disregard for its own regulations, procedures, and policies.”

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12/28/2014 |

The Federal Government Just Quietly Legalized Medical Marijuana


weed heroin 230x187 photoKTLA – Tucked deep inside the 1,603-page federal spending measure is a provision that effectively ends the federal government’s prohibition on medical marijuana and signals a major shift in drug policy.

The bill’s passage over the weekend marks the first time Congress has approved nationally significant legislation backed by legalization advocates. It brings almost to a close two decades of tension between the states and Washington over medical use of marijuana.

Under the provision, states where medical pot is legal would no longer need to worry about federal drug agents raiding retail operations. Agents would be prohibited from doing so.

The Obama administration has largely followed that rule since last year as a matter of policy. But the measure approved as part of the spending bill, which President Obama plans to sign this week, will codify it as a matter of law.

12/16/2014 |

Federal Government To Allow Native American Tribes To Grow And Sell Marijuana


weed 230x153 – Earlier this week news broke that the federal government would allow Native American tribes to grow and sell marijuana on tribal lands if the tribes desired to do so. The news seemed to come out of nowhere, as no organization or veteran activists from the marijuana community seemed to be working on the policy change. After the dust settled, it became clear that tribes themselves pushed for the policy change. This is a very significant thing, as it could result in legal marijuana being grown and sold in regions that were once thought off limits. The policy change is getting mixed receptions from tribes. There are reports of at least two tribes considering taking advantage of the new policy. Per the Courant:

Both the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots have looked to diversify their revenues in the face of increasing competition in the gambling industry. Neighboring states have added or expanded slot machines and other gaming options in recent years. Massachusetts and New York are in the process of adding casinos. The new competition threatens future success at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino, owned and operated by the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, respectively.

Marijuana could be a competitive advantage for the tribes.

Other tribes have been lukewarm to the policy change, or outright against the idea. Per Seattle PI:

The Hoopa Valley Tribe in Northern California has battled illegal pot plantations on its reservation that have damaged the environment.

In South Dakota, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council this year rejected a proposal to allow marijuana on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“For me, it’s a drug,” said Ellen Fills the Pipe, chairwoman of the council’s Law and Order Committee. “My gut feeling is we’re most likely going to shoot it down.”

Walter Lamar is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and former FBI agent, who advises and offers training to tribes on drug issues, noted that unemployment is high in Indian Country, and many of the jobs that are available, such as wildland firefighting, teaching, and U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs positions, require drug testing.

“Once there’s an easier availability for marijuana, it’s going to create some issues that could have an impact on our employment pool,” he said.

It will be interesting to see what tribes embrace the idea of legal marijuana. A legal marijuana industry on tribal lands could bring some much needed jobs and revenue to the tribes that decide to grow and sell marijuana. Oddly enough, it seems like the tribes that are most opposed to the idea are tribes that are bordered by states that have legalized marijuana. I would imagine that a tribe that legalized marijuana sales in a state that has harsh marijuana laws would make the most money, but only time will tell.

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12/15/2014 |

How Soon Will Recreational Marijuana Be Legal In Massachusetts?


joint 230x153 – Given Massachusetts voters’ overwhelming support for recent marijuana ballot initiatives — decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in 2008 and legalizingmedical marijuana in 2012 — the future of legal weed in the Bay State looks bright.

So when is Massachusetts going to legalize recreational marijuana? The short answer: Soon. Probably.

Now for the longer answer: A local group called Bay State Repeal is organizing and getting signatures for a ballot question in 2016 that, if passed, would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. A more powerful national group, Marijuana Policy Project, also organized a referundum committee, a first step in a process that is less than two years away.

“We’ve filed a committee so we can begin the process of raising money,” Mason Tvert, director of communications as MPP said. So far, though, they are “in the infancy of what will ultimately be a big effort.”

MPP has expertise in the area of marijuana ballot initiatives, as it led the efforts to legalize sales of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. Both of those created a template for other weed-friendly states hoping to cash in on new tax revenues.

There’s been some tensions between the national, more established MPP and the local Bay State Repeal (BSR). The latter group has said they feel shut out of the process of drafting the ballot initiative, but Tvert said that the two groups have been in touch in these early stages.

Despite those disagreements, precedent shows that Bay State Repeal will need a national group to join in the effort to successfully legalize marijuana. Having a major group behind it like MPP brings in the money, after all.

“There’s really no example of a local entity that gathers enough signatures, gets on ballot, and successfully defends it,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “[Local groups say] ‘Oh, we’re gonna raise the money locally!’ Really? It hasn’t happened yet.”

When these groups do ultimately draft a ballot initiative, it likely has the public support to pass.

“Massachusetts is absolutely one of the states in 2016 that are primed for reform,” St. Pierre said. The numbers back up that assertion:

• Both the 2008 and 2012 ballot initiatives on marijuana were approved by 63 percent of the voters.

• 53 percent of likely voters said they favor marijuana legalization in aSuffolk/Boston Herald poll in January 2014. Just 37 percent said they opposed it.

• Similarly, 48 percent of voters support legalization in a March poll by WBUR, while 41 percent opposed.

• The support is particularly strong among young people, as 60 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds said they support legalization. Just 31 percent of young people were opposed, WBUR found.

That advantage among Millennials leads us to 2016. That’s a presidential election year, which typically brings out a younger, more liberal voter demographic. Those young voters are the people who most support marijuana legalization, making 2016 the prime year that bans on marijuana go up on smoke.

Of course, passing a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana would not necessarily immediately create a market for the drug. Two years since medical marijuana was approved by voters, there were no dispensaries yet open in the state in October. The majority of available dispensary licenses have not been officially awarded by the state.

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12/14/2014 |

How Legalized Marijuana In The U.S. Is Crippling Mexican Drug Cartels


berkshire buds 230x153 photoVICE – Marijuana has accounted for nearly half of all total drug arrests in the US for the past 20 years, according to the FBI’s crime statistics. And according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), a large portion of the US illegal drug market is controlled directly by Mexican cartels. The DOJ’s National Drug Intelligence Center, which has since been shut down, found in 2011 that the top cartels controlled the majority of drug trade in marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine in over 1,000 US cities.

Now, those cartels and their farmers complain that marijuana legalization is hurting their business. And some reports could suggest that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is more interested in helping to protect the Mexican cartels’ hold on the pot trade than in letting it dissipate.

Seven Mexican cartels have long battled for dominance of the US illegal drug market: Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Gulf, Juarez, Knights Templar, La Familia, and Tijuana. While some smaller cartels operate only along border regions in the Southwest and Southeast, giant cartels like Sinaloa have a presence on the streets of every single region.

Kentucky wants to grow hemp so badly, it’s suing the federal government. Read more here.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that pot farmers in the Sinaloa region have stopped planting due to a massive drop in wholesale prices, from $100 per kilo down to only $25. One farmer is quoted as saying: “It’s not worth it anymore. I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

VICE News talked to retired federal agent Terry Nelson, a former field level commander who worked to prevent drugs from crossing the southern border. Nelson said that before medical marijuana and state legalization in Washington and Colorado, about 10 million pounds of pot were grown in the US every year. But 40 million pounds came from Mexico.

Given the DEA’s relationship with Sinaloa, and the agency’s fury over legalized marijuana, it almost seems like the DEA wants to crush the legal weed market in order to protect the interests of their cartel friends. Almost.

Exact numbers on illegal drug trafficking are always hard to pin down, due to the black market nature of distribution and sales.

“Is it hurting the cartels? Yes. The cartels are criminal organizations that were making as much as 35-40 percent of their income from marijuana,” Nelson said, “They aren’t able to move as much cannabis inside the US now.”

Seven important truths about how the world takes drugs in 2014. Read more here.

In 2012, a study by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute found that US state legalization would cut into cartel business and take over about 30 percent of their market.

Former DEA senior intelligence specialist Sean Dunagan told VICE News that, although it’s too early to verify the numbers: “Anything to establish a regulated legal market will necessarily cut into those profits. And it won’t be a viable business for the Mexican cartels — the same way bootleggers disappeared after prohibition fell.”

DEA chief of operations James Capra told senators this January that legalization “scares us” and is “reckless and irresponsible.” And the agency is continuing to crack down onmarijuana.

Given the DEA’s historic relationship with the Sinaloa cartel, and the agency’s fury over legalized marijuana, it almost seems like the DEA wants to crush the legal weed market in order to protect the interests of their cartel friends. Almost.


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12/11/2014 |
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