By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Massachusetts has licensed 20 dispensaries to start growing and selling marijuana for medical use, the Department of Health said on Friday in the latest U.S. step to boost access to the widely outlawed drug.
Massachusetts is among 20 states in the country that have passed laws allowing people to use marijuana as a medical treatment. Most of those states, like Massachusetts, are still setting up distribution networks.
State regulators received 100 applications to open dispensaries under a 2012 medical marijuana law, and were permitted to give out as many as 35 licenses.
A state Department of Health official was not immediately available to comment on why only 20 licenses were granted, though the department's website said eight of the rejected applicants had been invited to reapply with a different proposed location.
Under the Massachusetts law, authorized dispensaries are permitted to grow and sell marijuana but must be run as non-profit organizations. The approved dispensaries are located in 10 of Massachusetts' 14 counties.
The department said it evaluated applications based on the appropriateness of the site, local support, and the applicant's ability to meet the needs of patients while ensuring public safety.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-marijuana lobbying group based in Colorado, said the move to license dispensaries in Massachusetts would help prevent personal growing and black market buying by medical users.
"This is in line with what every other medical marijuana state is doing, but we are disappointed by the low number of licenses granted," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies at MPP. "People shouldn't have to grow their medicine or buy it underground."
O'Keefe said more competition also lowers prices, citing Colorado where a high concentration of dispensaries has helped cut marijuana prices in half.
Marijuana can be been used to reduce nausea and vomiting for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and is also used to treat pain. Colorado and Washington are the only two states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
(Editing by Tom Brown)