Medical Marijuana Community at Odds Over Proposed Changes to Maine's Law


 Patty Wight

AUGUSTA, Maine - The LePage administration is proposing more than two dozen changes to Maine's medical marijuana law. The changes come in the form of a bill that supporters say is designed to give the Maine Department of Health and Human Services enhanced oversight and enforcement over the industry.

Caregivers and medical marijuana dispensaries are squaring off over the proposed changes, which went to public hearing at the State House Friday.

Republican Rep. Deb Sanderson, the sponsor of the medical marijuana changes, says there are a number of issues in the current law governing medical marijuana that need attention. Among them, she told the Health and Human Services Committee, is a loophole that allows a Maine resident to grow medical marijuana for family members without registering as a caregiver.

"I know the department has had issues with this, of all of a sudden having some very large families," said Sanderson, who has proposed a limit of two family members.

Another provision in the bill would allow municipal officials to enter cultivation facilities so long as they're conducting municipal business, like checking for code violations. The tighter regulations and oversight outlined in the bill have garnered support from the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators. Speaking on behalf of the association, Laura Harper says the bill better balances the industry by leveraging appropriate fees and fines for caregivers as well as for dispensaries.

"The bottom line is, we operate on an un-level playing field with the caregivers," Harper said. "This causes our businesses to suffer, limits patient access to safe medicine in a professional setting, and puts our entire state at risk for unwanted attention from the federal government."

Some supporters want to see even more amendments added to the bill. The president of the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators, Tim Smale, says he wants the law to allow Maine's eight non-profit dispensaries to operate as for-profit. Smale says dispensaries don't qualify at the federal level as non-profits, and the lack of tax advantages hurts them financially.

"Caregivers, who control an estimated 70 percent of the medical marijuana business in Maine, are operated on a for-profit basis, and have unfair advantages by not having to pay income taxes like dispensaries," Smale said.

While dispensaries are largely in favor of the bill, caregivers, for the most part, are not. Steve Ruhl of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine says Maine was recently recognized by Americans For Safe Access as having the best medical marijuana law in the country for balancing regulations with patient access.

Ruhl says the proposed tighter regulations are unreasonable. "Caregivers are farmers running small businesses serving sick people. We are not criminals."

Many opponents complained that the law would make it illegal for caregivers to donate excess marijuana to other patients. Jodi Stebbins says she relies on medical marijuana for her excruciating abdominal pain.

"Over half of the medicine that I use to manage my pain is by donation. And if this changes, then I don't have my medicine," Stebbins said. "And that's not OK. And I'm not the only one in that situation."

Samantha Brown, a mother from South Berwick who grows medical marijuana to treat her young daughter's seizures, says the provision that would require her to become a registered caregiver and pay associated fees is unnecessarily burdensome, and will ultimately force some caregivers into the underground market.

"I am my daughter's caregiver. According to this bill, I must now register with the state and follow all the laws that govern business in order to grow for my daughter," Brown said. "Why should regulations that govern businesses now apply to myself as a mother providing for my daughter?"

Another point of contention is a provision that would limit the amount of medical marijuana a caregiver can distribute to each patient to two-and-a-half ounces every 15 days. Caregiver Mark Crockett says, for cancer patients, that's not adequate. And state government shouldn't get involved. "Now we're going to be dictated by the government on what type of medicine, and how much medicine, a cancer patient needs?"

About a dozen bills that address medical marijuana are up for consideration this session.