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Marijuana issue isn’t a done deal

Legislators have been talking about legalizing marijuana for medical purposes for some years now, and they’ve finally passed a bill permitting it. New Hampshire is the 19th state to do so and will hopefully benefit from the experiences of other jurisdictions that have led the way, but there are still some issues and uncertainties with how exactly the system will work.

The compromise the House and Senate reached eliminates the possibility of patients growing marijuana themselves, and instead will funnel all distribution through so-called “alternative treatment centers.” And those centers won’t be permitted in residences or near our schools: Hopefully, this measure — along with the provision that center locations remain confidential — will cut down on burglaries from what are to be secure and alarmed sites.

The Legislature has also capped the number of licensed centers at just four. Designated caregivers approved by the N.H. Department of Health Human Resource — the governing body that will oversee and regulate the distribution and use of medical marijuana — will be responsible for getting marijuana to patients.

The centers will be nonprofits, but it’s not altogether clear how the cost of the therapeutic drug will be regulated so that it’s affordable. Insurance companies don’t cover it and won’t be expected to, according to Keith Nyhan, director of consumer services at the N.H. Department of Insurance. Neither the drug nor the state administration costs will be borne by taxpayers. Instead, patients will have to pay for medical marijuana out of pocket.

For people with serious medical conditions — such as cancer, Crohn’s disease and other debilitating or terminal illnesses — seeking relief through cannabis will have to come up with the money or go without at a time when they are likely not working or working very little. It seems the humanitarianism of the legislation will only extend to persons able to afford the drug. It’s an issue that tugs at the heartstrings.

And while HB 573 specifies that criminal background checks will be required for designated caregivers involved with medical marijuana distribution, it’s not clear who exactly will step up to the plate to open an alternative treatment center. The law requires that the board of directors for a nonprofit treatment center to “include at least one physician, advance practice registered nurse, or pharmacist licensed to practice in New Hampshire and at least one patient qualified to register as a qualifying patient. The majority of board members shall be New Hampshire residents.”

Under the new legislation, a Therapeutic Use of Cannabis Advisory Council will be responsible for ensuring patients have access to high-quality cannabis, but just how that will be accomplished is not spelled out.

From the point of view of law enforcement, the clear, black and white prohibition of marijuana is no more. Now when an officer stops a vehicle and sees the distinctive leafy bud or its accompanying paraphernalia, things will be a little more complicated.

While for its advocates HB 573 is cause for celebration, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s still work to be done to ensure the parameters for medical marijuana in our state are clear.

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