Bill to propose marijuana research at UMaine stalls

April 25, 2009

Jeffrey Hake, The Maine Campus

A bill in the Maine Legislature would direct the University of Maine to grow marijuana. The bill, as a law, would direct UMaine to initiate a pilot project for studying the medical benefits of marijuana.

The bill failed in committee April 15, but will go back to the legislature for a final vote. It is not expected to pass.

The bill, L.D. 1070, would direct "the University of Maine College of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture and the University of Maine School of Nursing to collaborate in a project to grow and dispense medical marijuana to authorized individuals and to study pain reduction and other beneficial effects of marijuana."

The Health and Human Services Committee voted the bill ought not to pass.

Money raised from the sale of the project's marijuana would have supported its expenses.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Leila Percy, D-Phippsburg, said she was acting on the needs and concerns of her constituency.

"I have constituents who use medical marijuana," Percy said. "It was [an] accessibility issue for them."

Percy expressed a need for more information on the topic.

"We kept finding ourselves asking questions like, 'Is it beneficial?' and 'Has enough research been done?'"

According to an e-mail from Marcella Sorg, a nursing professor and forensic and medical anthropologist specializing in policy issues concerning drug abuse epidemiology at UMaine's Margaret Chase Smith Center, the bill "was, appropriately, already voted not to pass by the Health and Human Services Committee and is essentially dead."

Sorg said she testified in Augusta on behalf of the university and recommended the committee turn down the bill.

Two days before the committee voted, Sorg told its members UMaine believes the bill is inappropriate and that it would violate federal laws concerning marijuana.

"It is still against federal law to grow, possess or distribute marijuana," Sorg's written testimony said. "This L.D. would require the university … to become, in effect, a pharmacy-like dispensary selling an illegal substance. Currently, Maine law … does not permit dispensing of marijuana for medical purposes." She felt this could "potentially place university employees and federal-university relationships in jeopardy."

Sorg noted problems with the research side of the bill, saying many studies have already proved marijuana-derived pain medication works, making any research UMaine might conduct redundant, and that the Food and Drug Administration, "which regulates all pharmacologic research, has rejected the use of smoked marijuana for any medicinal purpose."

Percy said she does not know whether or not the bill will pass when it gets to the Legislature, adding, "you can never make … assumptions in Maine." She hopes the conversation about medical marijuana research and accessibility continues.

The debate about medical marijuana will continue even if the Maine Legislature rejects L.D. 1070.

Maine residents will vote on a medical marijuana referendum question in November. Medical marijuana advocates have collected the necessary 55,000 signatures to place a question on the November ballot that would ease access to medical marijuana for qualified patients. Charles Wynott, founder of the Maine chapter of Americans for Safe Access, which has been a leader in the medical marijuana petition drive, expressed his disappointment with the failure of L.D. 1070 in committee.

"I'm really displeased that it died [in committee]," Wynott said. "It would've gone a long way to help patients in Maine."

He said he has seen an increasing leniency toward drug policy in the Maine Legislature, but considerable resistance remains.

"Eventually they'll come to the realization that this is the right thing to do," Wynott said.

Wynott felt UMaine should play a role in researching medical marijuana.

"The citizens will benefit from it, and that's what [UMaine] is all about. It's an agricultural college. Why not use that to our benefit?" Wynott said.

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