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The East Coast Stumble In Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Tuesday, 20 Apr 2010 | 12:05 AM ET

If you are a legal medical marijuana patient on the East Coast, getting your hands on your medicine could be a matter of life or death.

"We have had patients that have been held up at gun point, robbed and scared to death when trying to get their medicine," says Joanne Leppanen, asssociate director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, a group representing the interests of patients and caretakers. "We even had a patient trying to buy medicine when a raid happened."

While four states in the East have legalized medical marijuana (Maine, Vermont, Rhode Islandand New Jersey), none have an accompanying distribution system, like dispensaries, leaving patients on their own as to how to get their marijuana.

“Patients will say, 'Hey I have this card, is it going to help me?' What can we tell them? They can feel very defeated knowing something is out there that can help them, but having no access,” says Leppanen. "It’s heartbreaking because they are no realistic options.”

The situation may soon improve. Three of the four states (Maine, Rhode Island and New Jersey) have recently passed legislation to establish state-licensed institutions that will sell medical marijuana to qualifying patients.

That said, however, these marijuana vendors won’t be anywhere near as sophisticated as the pot retailers in Coloradoor California, where both dispensaries and profits are plentiful. (Rounding out the 14 states where the practice is legal are Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Michigan, Hawaiiand Alaska.)

In fact, the East Coast outlets won’t even be called "dispensaries," but "compassion centers," or "alternative treatment centers" and will be not-for-profit organizations.

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Distribution Disaster

Although Maine and Rhode Island have just recently approved distribution systems, laws allowing qualifying patients to use medical marijuana have been in place much longer.

Maine legalized medical marijuana in 1999, Rhode Island in 2006. But the laws contained no provisions for consumption and distribution, leaving the details to the regulators. The laws simply spelled out how much marijuana patients and their caretakers could possess and grow.

“We’re sort of late out of the gate with this,” says Charles Alexandre, the director of the Medical Marijuana Program at the Rhode Island Department of Health. “It seems sort of chaotic on the West Coast. I think our legislature was trying to avoid that.”

One way state lawmakers are clearly trying to avoid the dispensary explosion trend of the West is by limiting the number of state-licensed marijuana outlets.

Hazy in New Jersey

In Rhode Island, for example, while there are 1,502 registered medical marijuana patients, only up to three nonprofit compassion centers will be allowed to operate. In Maine, where there is an undetermined number of patients because no registration program is functioning as of yet, the number of dispensaries will be limited to eight (more will be considered after the first year of operation) and all dispensaries will be subject to the state's five percent sales tax.

New Jersey is launching its distribution network with six non-profit, alternative treatment centers, with two in each of the state’s three regions. The first two in each region are required to be nonprofit, after which, approved alternative treatment centers may be either nonprofit or for-profit, according to the New Jersey law. It is undetermined when patients may begin to apply for the state medical marijuana program.

Details regarding how and when these state-licensed dispensaries will begin operating are somewhat hazy, especially in New Jersey and Maine where state health departments are still figuring out program details.

Rhode Island has the clearest deadlines for the application process. The state will stop taking applications on May 17 and then announce what organization will become the first compassion center on July 10.

As of early April, however, not one application had been received.

Alexandre says even if the state winds up receiving multiple applications there’s no guarantee any one of them will qualify.

Vermont, which legalized medical marijuana in 2004, has no legal provisions for dispensaries, but currently there are several House bills pending in committee which propose a distribution system. Two of the bills consider establishing not-for-profit 'compassion centers', one of which also proposes a study be conducted regarding what changes in law are necessary to permit pharmacies to distribute medical marijuana. Another bill proposes that marijuana seized in criminal cases be distributed to registered medical marijuana patients at liquor stores under the regulation of the department of liquor control.

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Worries About Price

If that isn't enough uncertainty, medical marijuana patients don't even know what the official centers will charge.

“Patients get a little apprehensive because they hear that some dispensaries have a good profit margin, but those are prices they just cannot afford,” says Leppanen.

In Denver, for instance, the average cost of an ounce of marijuana is $350, but it can range from $200 to $500.

The Rhode Island Department of Health will not regulate the prices of the medical marijuana. The fact that there may be only one dispensary with unregulated prices worries patients because a lot of medical marijuana patients in the state are from lower-income brackets who are already struggling financially, says Leppanen.

“We hope that they would be altruistic and would handle their business so people would not be priced out, but it’s not something we will regulate,” says Alexandre.

Savvy entrepreneurs are already trying to tap into the new market.

Rob Correy, a Colorado attorney who specializes in criminal defense and medical marijuana, says he receives numerous phone calls from dispensary owners on a regular basis asking about how they can set up shop in East Coast states.

Despite years of uncertainty and waiting, some medical marijuana patients remain optimistic.

Mary-Anne Hanley, a 52-year-old Rhode Island resident with chronic Lyme's disease, says she thinks the state-licensed dispensaries are a good idea because they are less-likely targets of federal raids.

“I’m hopeful about it,” says Hanley. “I would let them be my caregiver, if I feel like they are reasonable with their prices."