November 13, 2012

State's medical marijuana director tried to rescind his resignation

John Thiele admits tendering resignation in September; state Department of Health and Human Services says it refused Theile's request to rescind it

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The man who has overseen Maine's medical marijuana program for more than a year says he received little oversight or criticism of his work until he was fired last Friday.

John Thiele said he submitted, then rescinded, a letter of resignation, but was fired effective last Friday. Maine's Department of Health and Human Services gave a contradictory account of the firing, releasing a statement Tuesday saying that Thiele handed in a resignation letter in September, with his last day of work to be Oct. 20, followed by three weeks of vacation. That would make his last day of work last Friday.

When Thiele asked to rescind his resignation "several days after resigning," the department's statement said, "after careful consideration, the department did not accept this request."

Thiele said he is appealing his dismissal and said the department gave him no reason for refusing to allow him to rescind his resignation. He said a letter from DHHS denying him the ability to take back his resignation stated that he was terminated as a result.

He said he never received specific complaints about his work.

"There were only vague statements, like, 'You act too much like a social worker,'" Thiele said. "I think there's a general mindset in (the division of Licensing and) Regulatory Services that to have too much interaction with the people you regulate is a bad thing."

"I'm still shell-shocked," he said Tuesday, noting that he was largely left alone to run the program in the past year, after Catherine Cobb, his superior in the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned last November after being placed on leave during a management review of her Licensing and Regulatory Services division.

"Nobody wanted to get involved (with the program) and all of a sudden, I'm doing everything wrong," said Thiele, who has received mostly praise from medical marijuana patients and their caregivers, who are allowed to grow pot for patients under the program. Patients can also acquire marijuana from dispensaries, but the costs are generally higher.

The DHHS statement, issued in the name of Kenneth Albert, Cobb's replacement, said the department is not trying to change the direction of the medical marijuana program.

"We have long recognized the need to strengthen communication with many parties, especially law enforcement, in order to create consistency and a shared knowledge around where the program rules and the law intersect," the statement said. "The Legislature has set the direction for this program and it is our intent to follow that direction."

The department declined to comment beyond the statement.

Some fear, however, that the department is shifting gears to make it harder for patients to get marijuana for medical conditions.

"I am extremely concerned," said Chris Kenoyer, director of the Maine Patient Coalition and a licensed caregiver. "This is very discouraging and I'm fearing a crackdown."

Kenoyer said the department has proposed rules governing growing marijuana outdoors, which include requirements such as 8-foot-high fences around the plants, motion-sensitive light systems and a 25-foot setback from property lines, which he said would make it hard for caregivers who live on small plots of land to grow marijuana.

Thiele, Kenoyer said, had a reputation for helping patients and caregivers navigate the red tape and paperwork that evolved with the program.

Paul McCarrier, legislative liaison with the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, also praised Thiele, but said there have been some problems, including slow response to law enforcement requests for information on growers and patients. In some cases, he said, police suspected people of growing or using marijuana illegally and had drawn up and executed search warrants before they found out the suspects were patients with prescriptions or licensed caregivers.

McCarrier said a more timely response by the DHHS could have averted those problems.

Alysia Melnick, a public policy lawyer with the ACLU of Maine, said Thiele had been focused on making sure patients have access for marijuana at low cost and their privacy is protected.

She said the ACLU, which has helped draft laws to govern the program, wants to make sure Thiele's replacement shares those priorities.

Some of the rules that DHHS has proposed, she said, "would make it impossible" for many patients, particularly low-income patients, to get access to marijuana.

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