By Colleen Quinn

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Implementation of the state's medical marijuana law is not a failure and does not need to be rebooted, state Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz said Thursday, responding to criticism from the three Democratic candidates for governor.

During a televised debate Wednesday night, Steve Grossman, state treasurer, and Martha Coakley, the attorney general, cited the introduction of legalized medical marijuana as something they would do differently than Gov. Deval Patrick.

Massachusetts voters in 2012 approved a law to give patients with certain medical conditions the option to use medical marijuana to treat their symptoms. The state Department of Public Health is in the process of licensing medical marijuana dispensaries.

"I've spoken up clearly when I've seen failures of management. The medical marijuana implementation is a perfect example," Grossman said. "The people of Massachusetts voted for medical marijuana two years ago. We're really no closer to implementing that for people who have glaucoma and cancer and people who need medical marijuana. It will be an important thing for them. That was not handled well, and it needs to be better. "

Coakley agreed with Grossman, contrasting the process with the one used to license casinos in Massachusetts and suggesting it "needs to be relooked at.


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"I'm still concerned about the ways in which an industry - that is largely going to be cash for the short-run - is involved in something we haven't dealt with before and has a commodity that is illegal under federal law," Coakley said.

The three Democrats - Grossman, Coakley, and Don Berwick, a pediatrician and former Obama administration health care administrator - were later asked during a lightning round of questions, "Do we need a do-over in medical marijuana licensing process, yes or no?"

Both Coakley and Berwick said, "Yes, we do." Grossman said, "I think we do. It's fatally flawed."

Polanowicz defended the state's troubled medical marijuana licensing process that has been criticized as sloppy and confusing, with problems compounded by discoveries that some applicants lied on their applications.

"I think any time there's a question during a lightning round, there's an immediate pop response, and makes for a great sound bite," Polanowicz told the News Service Thursday.

Several lawsuits have been filed by rejected applicants. Judges reviewing some of those lawsuits have validated the licensing process, according to a spokesman for Health and Human Services.

"I think the issues have been around some of the applicants, some of the truthfulness of the applicants apparently lacked as part of the process," Polanowicz said.

Polanowicz said he would sit down with any of the candidates to talk about the process, and describe changes made to the background checks. After wheedling through 180 applications, the state has narrowed it down to 11, and is now in midst of reviewing new applications from select companies to open dispensaries in counties that did not have a dispensary qualify during the initial application phase.

"We look at the background checks that we've done, and we think it's been a thorough process," Polanowicz said.

Gov. Deval Patrick, during a radio appearance Thursday, also defended the Department of Public Health's efforts to make sure they don't rush the licensing process and possible award licenses to "unsavory or unqualified" applicants.

"I think we're going to do our very best, but we're not going to have state sponsored facilities in places where there isn't a qualified provider who has come forward," Patrick said, continuing, "I know they're working real hard to get it done, but get it done right."

Grossman criticized how long licensing is taking while people with medical conditions whose symptoms could be eased by marijuana wait.

Bringing a new industry into the state takes time, Polanowicz said, drawing parallels with legalizing casino gaming in the state.

"I draw the analogy to some other programs that have taken three or four years to start what is an entirely brand new industry in the state. We're trying to do this in what is a very measured way to make sure we get the right people to run dispensaries for the commonwealth," he said.

"This has been new for us; new for the department. I think they're doing an effective job getting the right people to open these dispensaries," Polanowicz said.

Matt Murphy contributed reporting.