Mass. cracking down on medical marijuana caregiver

Massachusetts health officials this week cracked down on a Reading-based company that has been selling marijuana to hundreds of patients around the state, warning that state regulations prohibit any caregiver from selling cannabis to more than one patient.

The state sent a letter June 25 ordering Bill Downing, a longtime activist for legalizing marijuana and owner of Yankee Care Givers, to “cease and desist” operating as a caregiver to more than one patient, according to Downing.

Many of Downing’s patients also received letters from Karen van Unen , executive director of the Department of Public Health’s medical marijuana program, saying: “Until dispensaries become operational, you may choose a new personal caregiver, or determine that you no longer require the services of a personal caregiver at this time.”

The state has yet to license any marijuana dispensaries, stores where people will be able to buy the drug if they have been issued a certificate by a doctor, and none is expected to open for months.

David Kibbe, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health, said the agency sent letters to all patients whom it identified whose caregiver is administering to more than one patient, “in violation of the law.” He did not say how many patients received letters.

The letters said that the caregivers, not the patients, were violating the law.

The rules allow patients with doctor-provided certificates to grow marijuana or have a caregiver cultivate it or obtain it for them — up to 10 ounces for a 60-day supply. Caregivers are limited to supplying one patient at a time, but caregivers, patients, and even some police officials say the rules are unclear and open to interpretation.

Scott Murphy, a 31-year-old Iraq veteran who uses marijuana to ease the pain of his degenerative arthritis, wrote a letter to state health officials saying he believed they were misintrepreting the medical marijuana law.

“They so easily say you can just find another caregiver or not use one at all,” Murphy said. “It does not seem like a patient-centered approach. It is not that easy to grow your own, and that takes three or four months. This is not fair.”

Downing, who estimated he has about 1,000 patients, said during a telephone interview that he will immediately stop selling marijuana, but is asking patients to join a lawsuit that he is contemplating against the state that will challenge its claim that he is breaking the law.

“The one-patient-per-caregiver regulation is illegal. … It’s causing great harm,” said Downing, adding that qualifying patients currently have limited access to medical marijuana because the state has failed to license any dispensaries since voters approved marijuana for medicinal use in November 2012. “It means the DPH is more concerned with their regulations than they are with the well-being of the citizens of Massachusetts.”

Downing said the Department of Public Health is aware of his business because since last year he has been sending it a form signed by each of his patients, designating him as their caregiver. He said the one-patient limit per caregiver does not apply to him because state regulations say personal care attendants are exempt from that rule and his business is defined as a personal services company.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com.

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