New Hampshire's medical marijuana program still delayed 2 years after its passage



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CONCORD, New Hampshire — For 20 years, Frank Paine has suffered from chronic back pain that caused him to retire early in 2009 and now makes it hard for him to walk long distances.

He's tried numerous medications, physical therapy and acupuncture. None of it has worked, but he and his doctor see another possible source of relief: Medical marijuana.

The state legalized medical marijuana in 2013, but Paine still has no idea whether it's a treatment that will work. He won't use it until he can access it legally and that's still not possible, a lag that has frustrated potential patients.

"I'm still hoping to take advantage of this once it's legal and I can submit the application for (an ID card) from the state," said Paine, 69. "That's the major holdup at this point."

The state's announcement Tuesday that it awarded four licenses to open dispensaries — the only legal place to get marijuana under the law — marked a significant step forward. But until the dispensaries open, patients who qualify can't get marijuana legally and are subject to prosecution if they're caught with marijuana bought elsewhere.

A narrow number of illnesses and symptoms will allow people to qualify for medical marijuana under New Hampshire's law. Those patients can get up to 2 ounces every 10 days. One treatment center will be in each of four regions in the state, but exact locations haven't been determined.

The three companies that have licenses have until August to go through a registration process that includes getting local approval to open the centers. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates it will be eight to nine months before a center is operating. The law says at least two licenses should have been awarded in January.

Republican state Rep. Joe Lachance of Manchester recently filed a lawsuit against the state for delays in the law.

To some, the delays feel like an effort by opponents to stall the process. To others, it's a reflection of a complex law.

"It's a tremendous amount of work on the part of HHS to get everything in place so that when our dispensaries open we have all the public health protections," said former Democratic state Rep. Donna Schlachman, who was the prime sponsor of the bill.

But the delays led to a broader worry: As patients wait for legal access, they have no protection from arrest if they get marijuana elsewhere.

Patients must have state-issued ID cards to use medical marijuana and Schlachman said her intent was for people to apply for IDs before the dispensaries opened. The Attorney General's office disagreed and issued a ruling last year saying IDs won't be issued until the dispensaries are open.

So, two years after the law passed, a qualifying patient could be arrested if caught with marijuana. Earlier this year, a man was arrested in Lebanon for having marijuana in his home, even though he had a medical marijuana ID card from the state of Washington, according to the Valley News.

"The first order of business, from our perspective, was getting these patients protected from arrest — and they still aren't," said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

State officials, meanwhile, say the lengthy process is needed to get the law right.

"We are following the law," Gov. Maggie Hassan said Wednesday. "This was the way it was intended to work to make sure as we were building this system from the ground up that we were doing it carefully."

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