Friday August 23, 2013

BOSTON (AP) -- More than 100 groups have applied to operate nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, the state’s top public health official said Thursday.

The applicants are competing for a maximum of 35 licenses allowed under a law voters approved in November, which will make marijuana available to patients with certain medical conditions, such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease and AIDS.

Prospective operators were required to hand-deliver initial applications to the Department of Public Health by 3 p.m. Thursday. Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett said officials were excited with the response.

"We are glad that it was a highly competitive process and it will ensure patients’ access to the medical use of marijuana in the Commonwealth," said Bartlett.

During the first phase of a two-step selection process, officials will conduct background checks and screen applicants for financial viability. Groups that clear the initial review will be invited to submit final applications, accompanied by a non-refundable $30,000 fee. A selection committee will then score the final applicants.

Bartlett said an exact number of applicants and a list of them would be available Friday. Her agency hopes to complete the initial reviews by mid-September and award licenses by the end of the year, she said.

Massachusetts is among 20 states that has authorized medical marijuana. Rules adopted by the department will allow patients to receive a 60-day supply of 10 ounces of marijuana, though doctors could recommend that some acutely ill patients receive more. Licensed dispensaries will be required to pay a yearly registration fee of $50,000 to stay in business.

Applicants were not required to specify locations for proposed dispensaries during the first phase of the process. The law requires at least one dispensary in each of the state’s 14 counties, but no more than five in any one county.

Among those who dropped off an application on Thursday was Catherine Cametti of Walpole, who hopes to dispense medical marijuana from a site in Norfolk County.

"I became so intrigued with the whole idea and started researching it more and more, and realized there were so many wonderful opportunities and so many patients that had been helped by medical marijuana," said Cametti, a real estate appraiser and Massachusetts native with no previous experience with dispensing medical marijuana.

She said her grandmother who died of cancer could have benefited from the drug.

Cametti said she has lined up financing and assembled a board of directors for her nonprofit company that includes a pharmacist, licensed physician and a patient who suffers from multiple sclerosis. If awarded a license, the dispensary will initially employ about 20 people, she said.

Valerio Romano, an attorney working with prospective operators as well as patients seeking medical marijuana, said one of the biggest obstacles going forward will be convincing local communities to accept dispensaries within their borders.

"It’s all about municipal support. A lot of what we have to do is go to towns and get them onboard," said Romano. "Some are vehemently opposed, and some are saying ‘bring it on, we’d love to have a dispensary here."’

Bartlett said local support for a proposed dispensary will be among the factors weighed in the final selection process.

While towns cannot impose outright bans on medical marijuana outlets, some have ordered moratoriums and others are exploring zoning restrictions.

Romano said communities with moratoriums are "shooting themselves in the foot" because they will likely miss out on jobs and other benefits that a dispensary can bring to local residents.