By Alex Lippa
---- — Medical marijuana may be legal in New Hampshire, but don’t expect to be treated with it anytime soon.
By signing the new law Wednesday, Gov. Maggie Hassan started the process of getting four medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. But it will be a while before they are actually operating.
“It would be a surprise if two years from now they are up and running,” said Matt Simon, a New Hampshire-based legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.
The Marijuana Policy Project focuses on changing policies to make marijuana available to seriously ill people.
New Hampshire is the 19th state to allow medical marijuana and the last of the New England states.
The law says the Department of Health and Human Services has 18 months to grant registrations for at least two applicants for a dispensary. But prior to that, DHHS has one year to determine the rules for anyone who applies for a license.
“There are significant implementation issues around the establishment of rules for issuing cards to those eligible to receive treatment,” said John Williams, director of legislative affairs for DHHS.”
Simon said he expects 1,000 residents to have cards once they can be issued.
The rules they will discuss are administrative and outline the internal process of handing out identification cards to those who qualify to be treated.
“It just needs to be controlled and it needs to make sure that it’s only in the hands of people who need it,” said Rep. Timothy Robertson, D-Keene, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
The law states that anyone who receives a card must be diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition. Those conditions include cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
They also have to determine the guidelines for granting a license for the dispensaries. Some of those rules have already been defined by the law. There can be no more than four dispensaries in the state and they can’t be in a residential district or within 1,000 feet of a school.
While DHHS has 18 months to decide on the first two dispensaries, Simon is pushing for a quicker process.
“We hope it will be done sooner than that because many patients need this,” he said.
Where the dispensaries will be located is still to be determined, but Simon expects them to be separate from hospitals and pharmacies.
“They will likely look like small businesses,” Simon said.
Simon pointed to the dispensaries available in Vermont and Maine, which are located in standalone buildings and plazas.
WIlliams said they would carefully look at all applicants.
“As long as there isn’t anything in the legislation that would preclude a specific entity from participating, we would consider a wide range of vendors and anyone who would put in a bid for this important work.” he said.
Rep. Patrick Culbert, R-Pelham said he was pleased the bill was signed, but wished that there was an option for individuals to grow medical marijuana.
“My wife died of lung cancer, and that is something that would have helped her,” Culbert said. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford the marijuana available at the dispensaries.”
Simon said it’s hard to gauge how much the marijuana would cost in New Hampshire, but he said $400 for an ounce would be a fair price.
Several local town officials said if a dispensary wanted to open in their towns they would give it consideration.
“We would treat it like we would any other business,” Londonderry Acting Town Manager Bill Hart said. “That process just has to comply with ordinances through the Planning Board.”
Salem Town Manager Keith Hickey said he couldn’t step in the way of a potential dispensary.
“I don’t know if there is anything we could do if we wanted to,” he said.
But what soon could be coming is town-issued moratoriums. At least a dozen municipalities in Massachusetts, including Haverhill, have held off on allowing dispensaries as they craft rules on where they could be allowed. Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana dispensaries in January.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see towns start to come out against it,” Simon said.
Williams said the law was written with the intention to have the dispensaries spread out around the state.
“It was the intent of the bill to make sure this would be accessible to qualifying patients across the state,” he said.
Williams said the first step will be forming an advisory committee to help form the rules. It would include legislators, state employees and members of the medical field.