BOSTON (AP) — State public health officials awarded Friday the first 20 licenses to operate medical marijuana dispensaries, the first in Massachusetts under a voter-approved law.
The 20 were chosen by the Department of Public Health out of 100 finalists. The dispensaries, which officials said could begin opening by the summer, will be allowed to grow and sell marijuana for patients with certain medical conditions including cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.
Two outlets were approved in Boston, and others would be in Mashpee, Dennis, Taunton, Fairhaven, Salem, Haverhill, Holyoke, Northampton, Lowell, Ayer, Newton, Cambridge, Brookline, Quincy, Plymouth, Brockton, Milford and Worcester.
The law, approved in November 2012, permits a maximum of 35 dispensaries in Massachusetts and requires that all 14 of the state's counties have at least one. But four counties — Berkshire, Franklin, Dukes and Nantucket — were not included in the first round of approvals.
Karen von Unen, director of the DPH's medical marijuana program, said eight other applicants that were deemed qualified but rejected because of their proposed locations will be invited to reapply in one of the four counties excluded from the initial license awards.
Applicants were first subject to background checks and screening for financial viability. Finalists were then judged by a selection committee on factors including appropriateness of site, local support, and ability to meet the needs of patients, according to public health officials.
"We weren't prepared to settle for anything less than a highly qualified applicant," van Unen said in a conference call with reporters.
Three of the licenses were awarded to the same company, Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts Inc. The firm's president is former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who served in Congress from 1998 to 2012.
Walpole Deputy Police Chief John Carmichael, a member of the selection committee, said politics played no role in the process.
The licenses are provisional, subject to municipal permits and final inspections. Officially to be known as Registered Marijuana Dispensaries, they will be required under state regulations to pay a yearly registration fee of $50,000.
"I'm very excited about the opportunity to help patients in Barnstable County," said Jane Heatley, founder of the William Noyes Webster Foundation, which won a license to operate one of two Cape Cod dispensaries.
Because her group has already secured permits from the town, Heatley said the facility could open within five months and is currently hiring staff experienced with medical marijuana operations in other states.
Some facilities could take longer to begin operations. For example, Healthy Pharms, Inc., which was awarded a license in Haverhill, is still awaiting approval of zoning regulations from the city, according to Valerio Romano, a lawyer who represents the company and several other groups awarded licenses.
Matthew Allen, head of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, expressed concern that dispensaries would not initially be located in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties, but agreed that DPH should only award licenses to the strongest applicants.
Prospective medical marijuana patients hailed news that the drug would soon be legally available, including Allison Jones, 60, who suffers chronic pain from severe injuries sustained in an accident four years ago and said she cannot tolerate prescription medications.
"Medical marijuana helps me deal with the nausea, the pain and the muscle spasticity," said Jones, a nurse from Rutland. "It's made me able to get my life back."
Massachusetts is among 20 states that allow for medical marijuana use, but many doctors remain skeptical.
"Patients should remember that marijuana lacks the rigorous testing of drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration; that claims for its effectiveness have not been scientifically proven; and that it poses health risks of toxins and cognitive impairment, the last condition being especially risky for young patients," Dr. Ronald Dunlap, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement.
List of approved registered marijuana dispensaries: http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dph/quality/drugcontrol/medical-marijuana/applications/results/approved-for-provisional-license.pdf