March 19, 2010

Medical pot deal reached

Legislative panel OKs 8 dispensaries, registration and a state ID card

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee on Thursday reached unanimous, bipartisan accord on implementing Maine's citizen initiative that expanded the rights of medical marijuana users.

Marijuana advocates who brought the initiative before voters last November were satisfied, but unenthusiastic, about the final product.

"It's livable," said Jonathan Leavitt, executive director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative, about the legislation, L.D. 1811, which received the support of the nine present members of the Health and Human Services committee.

In the bill, the committee authorized a maximum of eight nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries around the state -- one for each established public health zone in Maine.

These dispensaries would replace the informal system in place since 1999, which has allowed patients -- with a doctor's support -- to grow and use a limited amount of medical marijuana.

Instead, patients and caregivers will have to register with the Department of Health and Human Services and produce a state-issued identity card authorizing them to use marijuana.

This requirement has been contentious.

"That is a huge invasion of privacy for those patients and caregivers who prefer to keep their use of medical marijuana between them and their doctors," said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

Her group has argued that the registration component of the bill should be optional, as the citizen's initiative suggested.

As part of the registration process, patients will tell DHHS if they plan to grow up to five plants (the most allowed under law), appoint a caregiver to grow marijuana for them or buy marijuana from a specific dispensary.

If patients wish to change their status after, say, a homegrown crop fails, they would need departmental permission.

The legislation does not put an age limit on using medical marijuana, but the committee supported a suggestion from the Maine Medical Association to require doctors to consult a pediatrician and psychiatrist before prescribing marijuana to anyone under 18.

Those specialists providing consultations would be plucked from a new medical advisory committee that would be set up under the bill, which will compile a list of medical conditions appropriate for medical marijuana treatment.

Also in the legislation is a compromise on another matter important to advocates -- the privacy of patients.

Many patients and caregivers have opposed a recommendation from a state marijuana task force, which worked on implementing the initiative, to allow DHHS to inspect the home of anybody growing medical marijuana with 24 hours notice.

Patients and advocates said they feared inspection authority could be abused. Lawmakers have said it is a necessity.

"I think if you're growing a substance that is still against federal law you bloody well should be subject to inspection," said Rep. Sarah Lewin, R-Eliot.

The committee' bill exempted anyone growing marijuana for two or fewer patients from inspection.

Dispensaries will be subject to inspection at any time and will be required to pay an annual registration fee, set by DHHS, of perhaps $15,000.

The committee also voted to make the database of marijuana patients and caregivers held by DHHS confidential.

An amendment by one task force member, Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, to forbid dispensaries from growing marijuana was rejected, however.

The Legislature could consider the bill, perhaps as early as next week -- and debate is expected.

"It is my personal belief that the people of the state of Maine will rue the day they voted for this," said Lewin. "I am still not convinced that we are not going to see a whole lot more criminal activity because of this. I will feel very free to say that on the floor of the House."

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford - 620-7016


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