BOSTON (AP) -- Massachusetts voters have overwhelmingly approved a move to legalize medical marijuana, yet questions remain over how distribution will be regulated and whether the state can stop abuses.
The law approved through Question 3 on Tuesday’s 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. It will create nonprofit treatment centers to grow and provide marijuana to patients or their caregivers.
Opponents say they are concerned that the state Department of Public Health, which is supposed to regulate the treatment centers, will not be able to prevent abuses. The department has been criticized in recent months for a lack of oversight at a drug-testing lab that was shut down in August after a chemist allegedly acknowledged mishandling evidence and faking test results. The state pharmacy board, under the auspices of DPH, has also come under scrutiny in a fungal meningitis outbreak linked to a steroid distributed by a compounding pharmacy in Framingham.
"They have had some documented problems and they are working very hard to address those, but those are major undertakings and now this is thrown at them as well. It’s a lot of work in a relatively short period of time," said state Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, an opponent of the law.
"I just think the law was poorly written and is ripe for exploitation," he said.
The law, which will take effect Jan. 1, calls for the DPH to issue a set of regulations within 120 days after that. The DPH must decide what amount of marijuana constitutes the 60-day supply patients can get for their personal use, register patients and caregivers, register treatment centers that will distribute the marijuana; and register the treatment center’s personnel.
"The Department will work closely with health care and public safety officials to develop smart and balanced policies and procedures over the coming months. We will work carefully, learn from other states’ experiences and put a system in place that is right for Massachusetts," Dr. Lauren Smith, the department’s interim commissioner, said in a statement Wednesday.
The law limits the number of centers to no more than 35 in 2013, but says the DPH could allow more after that.
Supporters say the law has built-in safeguards that will prevent Massachusetts from encountering the problems seen in California and Colorado, where hundreds of marijuana dispensaries have opened and sparked complaints about increased crime and other social problems.
"We only have 35 dispensaries versus the hundreds that are in Los Angeles or Denver. Nonprofits will be doing the dispensaries," said Peter Hayashi, a neuropsychologist from Newton who suffers from chronic, debilitating nerve pain and supported the law to legalize medical marijuana.
"The Department of Public Health is hardly a hotbed of licentiousness or recklessness. I have confidence that they’ll be able to handle the question of the number (of dispensaries) in a reasonable manner."
Supporters also cite the penalties for violating the law. Anyone who fraudulently uses a DPH registration could be sentenced to up to six months in county jail, while those who fraudulently use a registration card to sell marijuana for non-medical uses could face up to five years in state prison.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said the mixed experiences in other states caused him to have his own misgivings about the ballot question initially. But he said now that the measure has been approved, the DPH has the responsibility for drafting regulations.
"They will do so and do so well," Patrick said Wednesday. "They’ll be fully vetted as you know in this process, and we will learn as we go." "That’s been the secret of success around health care reform and a host of other legislative initiatives over the last few years, and I suspect that will also be the case with medical marijuana."
Heidi Heilman, who headed the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, a group that worked to defeat the ballot question, said she is concerned that the broad language in the law will open up the door for many people to get marijuana legally. The law lists nine specific medical conditions, but also says patients with "other conditions" can receive marijuana with written permission from their doctors.
"People can get medical marijuana for headaches, insomnia, back pain. That will increase the demand, and with that comes an increase in supply. That’s what happened in other states," Heilman said.
"It’s a billion-dollar industry that we just opened the door to here in Massachusetts. They are going to come in and capitalize on anyone in pain and our young people."
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.