Federal-State Guidelines Clash as Martha’s Vineyard Considers Cannabis

As states all over the country begin to change and then implement their own marijuana laws, either for a medical or recreational market, clashes with federal law continue to occur, and in some of the strangest waters—in some cases quite literally.

As the Obama Administration continues to drag its feet on the reform front, many expect this issue to be punted to the next resident of the Oval Office, those clashes have continued to stray into the land of strange.

In the case of Massachusetts, the circumstances on their face are nothing new. State law now says that marijuana is legal; furthermore, the same statute also stipulates that every county must have at least one dispensary for medical marijuana. The problem arises, therefore, for residents of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, both of which are islands separated from the mainland and both of which are designated as “counties.”

The real rub is of course that marijuana cannot be transported over or across a federally designated body of water. This means that both islands must establish licenses on the islands themselves.  This issue also means that the islands cannot share a dispensary.

Technically, a grow-site and dispensary on each island is the only solution that will fit the bill, unless the state envisions locking up state-legal marijuana patients for going on vacation with their medication to another in-state county only to run afoul of federal law. That is also no idle threat.  The Coast Guard is specifically tasked to be on the front lines of the maritime “drug trade.”

That puts this issue on the front burner for the state now as well.

There are a few entrepreneurs already trying to drum up support for local growing and dispensation on both of the islands, justifying the business case on both the number of full-year residents with chronic conditions as well as the tourist trade that swells the population several times over on both islands in the summer months. Nantucket has a year-round population of about 9,500 people and more than 60,000 during the summer. Martha’s Vineyard has about 15,000 full-time residents. From May to late August, that number is more like 115,000. A considerable number of those tourists are in-state.

Furthermore, since Massachusetts legalized medical use, at least in theory, the state has been beset by multiple delays in rolling out a fully implemented, state-wide program and has been repeatedly criticized by advocates. Current regulations only allow 35 dispensaries for the entire state. If both islands must get one license each, this technically means that mainland Massachusetts will only get 33.

That said, state officials are well aware of the problem. Marylou Sudders, the state secretary of Health and Human Services, has predicted that as many as 15 of those dispensaries might finally be open by the end of this year. In regards to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Sudders noted, “perhaps we have to do something differently on the islands.”

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