In the often-forgotten counties of western Massachusetts, some surprise was expressed when the Mass. Department of Public Health today awarded only 20 medical marijuana dispensary licenses, covering only ten of the state’s fourteen counties, to sixteen nonprofit Phase 2 applicants.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the DPH has yet again successfully stalled full implementation of the 2012 voter-approved law endorsed on the ballot by 65% of Mass. voters, which stipulates that every county in the state shall be permitted a licensed dispensary. I say not surprisingly, because virtually every aspect of the regulation process has thus far been misguided and steeped in corruption.
The “panel” reviewing these Phase 2 applicants has been, from the very outset, a bit of a joke, consisting of 1 representative from the naturally-competing pharmaceutical lobby, a police official paid as a lobbyist to oppose the ballot initiative before it was passed, and a bunch of DPH employees. Not that it matters, because as was indicated to applicants at an October 2013 conference, final decision went to DPH Commissioner and self-described “political animal” Cheryl Bartlett. Though outstanding applicants existed in every county, Bartlett’s group somehow managed to leave a majority of the eligible patients in the entire western half of the state disenfranchised from this form of voter-legalized medical service by approving just over half of the expected number of dispensaries to be licensed in the first year. With this, Bartlett has (almost, but not quite) implemented the bare minimum of that required by the voter-approved mandate, while being able to reward some long time friends and political allies in the process.
In the grand tradition of Massachusetts cronyism, it’s not surprising that about a quarter of the RMD applicants licensed today turn out, upon closer examination, to be run by former high-ranking state politicians and Democratic party insiders.
Take for instance, the top scoring “candidate” for RMD licensing, in the DPH’s final evaluation, who were granted 3 of the 20 licenses: Medical Marijuana for Massachusetts. This new nonprofit is headed by former state rep. Bill Delahunt, a longtime “great friend,” political patron, and campaign donation recipient of Cheryl Bartlett, and also features as an executive Kevin O’Reilly, former advisor to Mass. Senate President Therese Murray, another known BFF of Commissioner Bartlett’s.
Almost as well-rewarded was the #2 top-scorer, New England Treatment Access, Inc, which is backed by Arnon Vered and the Kessler Group, a substantial chunk of whose total political campaign contributions from 1995-2013 went to Massachusetts Democrats, particularly Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Even former Mass. state senator Brian Lees, who in November raved about what a good job Bartlett was doing managed to squeak by on the lower end of the high-scorers to secure a DPH license to operate a dispensary in Holyoke.
But wait, yes, I remember now, we’re supposed to believe that Bartlett did NOT hold sway over this, and this responsibility was handed over, at the eleventh hour, to a new medical marijuana program director Karen van Uten. While this new official may lack the visible political entanglements of Bartlett, she is nonetheless an employee answerable to the Commissioner, an employee starting the job a mere two weeks before she allegedly made the “final decision” in a sudden, last minute change from the DPH’s stated policy that came just days after Massachusetts Republicans began complaining of smoky-room politics at work in the RMD licensing process. That leaves us with either the option that the DPH Commissioner is an idiot, or she thinks we are…
I suppose, then, that it is worth remembering that Bartlett only last summer replaced former DPH Commissioner John Auerbach who resigned amidst the department’s deplorably bad track record of the past two years. The Massachusetts Department of Health *as an entity* has recently been at the center of massive scandals, which cost lives, put innocent suspects in jail and has cost the state untold millions, in failing to properly manage the state crime lab and in regulating compounding pharmacies… in light of that, maybe we can’t expect any better.