BOSTON -- Massachusetts Republicans are calling for a change in the medical marijuana licensing process, describing it "politicized and secretive" and alleging that the state public health commissioner is too closely associated with former Congressman William Delahunt, who is among the license applicants with political ties.
As regulators close in on decisions this month for up to 35 dispensary licenses, the MassGOP on Thursday requested that Gov. Deval Patrick abandon the licensing process and create an independent commission similar to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to handle licensing.
Massachusetts voters in 2012 approved a ballot referendum legalizing medical marijuana.
The party took particular issue in a press release with Department of Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett's close ties to Delahunt and former state Sen. Henri Rauschenbach, both involved in the application process who she has previously referred to as a "great friends." Bartlett has donated campaign funds to Delahunt in the past.
"The public cannot have faith in the decisions made by the Department of Public Health because of the apparent conflict of interest for Commissioner Bartlett and the secrecy surrounding the awarding of licenses," MassGOP Executive Director Rob Cunningham said in a statement.
The Department of Public Health earlier this week named Karen van Unen, the former chief operating officer of a Dorchester public health program, as executive director of its medical marijuana program.
A selection committee convened in December by the DPH plans this month to present to van Unen its final recommendations on registered marijuana dispensary applications. One hundred applicants are competing for up to 35 licenses. State officials must award at least one but no more than five dispensary licenses per county.
The selection committee will make licensing recommendations to van Unen. DPH officials said on Monday that van Unen will have final signoff on the recommendations. Republicans said van Unen's appointment amounted to a "sudden change" in the licensing process and would not eliminate conflict because she reports directly to Bartlett.
"Placing the final decision in the hand of a single individual is an invitation for trouble, and the Patrick Administration is inviting lawsuits and a federal investigation. It's disturbing that such a transparent process was developed to hand out casino licenses, but the state is handing out licenses to sell marijuana based on a closed door process tainted by conflicts of interest," he said.
The party highlighted an interview Bartlett gave to the Barnstable Patriot in 2000 as she prepared to take over as director of the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod & Islands when she described herself as a "political animal." A former member of the Nantucket Board of Selectmen, Bartlett over the years has made campaign donations to many elected officials, including former Sens. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, Congressman William Keating, former state Sen. Robert O'Leary, and a 2007 donation to Delahunt's political action committee.
Gov. Patrick has had little to say about medical marijuana licensing as the process nears its conclusion.
Delahunt, a lobbyist, is listed by DPH as the CEO of a group called Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts, which has applications for dispensaries in Plymouth, Taunton and Mashpee.
According to media reports, numerous other former elected officials have aligned themselves with applicants for licenses, including former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, and former Sens. Henri Rauschenbach, Brian Lees and Stephen Buoniconti.
While Rauschenbach, a former Brewster Republican lawmaker, is reportedly helping an organization called the Kingsbury Group with their application for a Bourne dispensary, DPH records show that former Sen. Andrea Nuciforo is working with Kind Medical toward an Easthampton license and Lees is affiliated with Debilitating Medical Condition Treatment Centers seeking to do business in Holyoke.
Unlike the Gaming Commission, which has published complete applications online, the DPH website only provides public access to lists of the Phase 1 and Phase II license applicants, points of contact and the location where they are bidding for a license.
The selection committee is reviewing and scoring applicants based on factors such as appropriateness of the site, geographical distribution of dispensaries, and the applicant's ability to meet the overall health needs of registered patients while ensuring public safety, according to the DPH. Also, applicants have been asked to demonstrate local support during the review process, and must show that they can comply with all municipal rules.
In a statement Monday, Bartlett said van Unen's "management expertise in public health and commitment to safety and patient access will successfully guide the implementation of the Commonwealth's medical marijuana program."
The selection committee members are Madeleine Biondolillo, associate commissioner and bureau director, Health Care Safety and Quality, Massachusetts DPH; Todd Brown, executive director, Massachusetts Independent Pharmacists Association; John Carmichael Jr., deputy police chief, Walpole Police Department; Suzanne Cray, deputy chief of staff, Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services; Georgia Simpson May, director, Office of Health Equity, Massachusetts Department of Public Health; Louise Rice, public health consultant; former senior director of Public Health Nursing and School Health Services, Cambridge Public Health Department; and Cheryl Anne Sbarra, senior staff attorney, Massachusetts Association of Health Boards.
Provided with information late Thursday morning about the party's criticism of the licensing process, a DPH communications official did not have a response by early afternoon.