As of January 1, 2013, it became legal to use marijuana with a prescription in Massachusetts. This brings up a crop of questions about how to regulate a drug that is still illegal on a federal level: Who can grow it? Who can distribute it? How can we make sure it's accessible to people who need it?

Boston Public Radio's Callie Crossley spoke with Boston Public Health Commissioner Barbara Ferrer about how the city is working with the state to figure these questions out:

Five dispensaries have been state approved for Suffolk County. How do you make a decision about where they go?

I think we have to clarify: We have no regulations right now, what we have is a law that passed. The law actually allows the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to write regulations... There are a lot of details that need to get worked out, including issues around zoning. What we're guaranteed by law, at this point, is that there has to be at least one treatment center located in Suffolk County (Chelsea, Winthrop, Boston, Revere). And, the maximum number of treatment centers we could have in our county is five. It's unclear at this point in time how the state regulations would further define that...

Obviously, we need to balance the need for patients to have good access- so in a city like Boston that means  that it has to be accessible by our public transportation system, it has to be in a place where people would be able to easily get to it.  Many people who will need to come into the treatment center are people who are ill, so you certainly don't want to add a host of barriers about making this a place to find, or hard to locate, or had to navigate to... We want to be able to balance those legitimate issues and legitimate concerns that are going to be raised in the neighborhoods with the fact that this has to be a place that people have easy access to.

Have you looked at how other communities have handled marijuana dispensaries?

One advantage that we have in Massachusetts is that there are 17 other states that have already passed laws that decriminalized the use of medical marijuana. The downside is that some of the laws are very different from the law that passed in Massachusetts... We did look at Colorado because they've done a lot, and the city of Denver, in particular was able to offer us some good advice based on a couple of years of experience now. Our law is different in what it allows for- but, I think what it allowed us to do was find out what kinds of concerns cropped up when they started implementing, and how did they then figure out how to address them.

Denver is a lot more spread out city than Boston, so we're going to have issues around citing related to how much acreage you might need if you were growing a significant number of marijuana and would that be possible in a centrally located treatment facility or does it make more sense in a city like Boston to have your growing somewhere else?

Who can grow marijuana?

Treatment centers are allowed to grow, distribute, as well as assist people use marijuana. We'll have to see how the state is defining that. But, it definitely includes the ability to grow and to be a grower. This law allows caregivers to grow for patients and patients to grow for themselves if there's a medical hardship that would prevent them from getting to the treatment center.

In some other states caregivers can work with up to a half dozen to a dozen patients and they end up being the growers for those patients. Whether or not that's going to happen in Massachusetts remains to be seen depending on how the state decides to regulate.

How are you handling concerns about illicit activity around dispensaries? 

We need to have a treatment center that is very careful about who's allowed in, so that the only people coming in are people who have a prescription, or have been certified or registered with the state so that they have their registration cards when they come in, or are a caregiver and have a caregiver card so that it doesn't become a hangout place.

Sometimes we hear "we don't want any more drugs addicts in our neighborhood." This is not a program for drug addicts. This is a program for people with medically documented debilitating drug conditions.

I think what neighborhoods are most worried about is who else gets attracted to these treatment centers and there's the advantage for having local government heavily involved... we can forsee what we think will be some of those issues working closely with our residents and trying to make sure they are addressed in the regulations.

Listen to the full interview here: