March 12, 2010

Much work remains for medical marijuana system

Despite months of work by a state task force on medical marijuana, significant concerns remain about the details of developing Maine's new voter-approved system of pot dispensaries.

They include who is authorized to grow medical marijuana, whether growers and dispensaries should be separate, and whether a quarter-pound of marijuana is enough for patients to use every month.

A bill to implement the Maine Medical Marijuana Act, L.D. 1811, had a public hearing on Thursday.

The legislation specifies that medical marijuana patients can grow up to six plants, hire caregivers who can assist no more than five patients, or buy marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland and chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, wants to use the state's food safety standards to ensure medical marijuana is of high quality and available in significant volume.

She introduced an amendment to separate dispensaries from growing operations, and to require wholesale growing by authorizing only five growers in the state.

Individual patients and their caregivers still would be allowed to grow their own marijuana, however, as under the original bill.

"This approach will address concerns about diversion of product by having fewer growing operations," Haskell told the Health and Human Services Committee. "If we are to consider medical marijuana as a legitimate article of commerce, it is important for us to use a professionally regulated process."

Her proposal, she said, could help existing Maine farmers who wish to diversify their crops.

Haskell's amendment failed to garner vocal support, although Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, said lawmakers in Oregon are considering legislation to have a limited number of state-run growing operations.

"It's actually a moneymaker for the state," Celli said.

The Legislature's Taxation Committee is considering how marijuana might be taxed. While prescription drugs are not taxed in Maine, medicinal herbs are.

Many patients, caregivers and growers of medical marijuana said that they were against centralized growing.

"It didn't work in Stalinist Russia, it didn't work in Maoist China and it doesn't work in the San Fernando Valley," said Jonathan Leavitt, of Sumner, executive director of the Maine Medicinal Marijuana Policy Institute.

Cynthia Rosen, of Washington, considers marijuana a natural remedy -- equivalent to the echinacea or garlic she grows -- rather than a medicine, and did not see the need for restrictions on how it is grown.

"When I look at putting the natural remedy into a higher regulatory climate, when is that going to trickle down to my echinacea and my garlic?" she asked the committee.

The Maine Civil Liberties Union spoke in opposition to the bill.

"The most concerning proposal in L.D. 1811 is the provision for 24-hour-notice, on-site assessment of patient growers or caregivers by the Department of Health and Human Services," said Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel for the organization.

She pointed out the 1999 law authorizing medical marijuana in Maine lacked this provision.

"Medical marijuana patients and the citizen caregivers who care for them deserve to be treated with as much dignity and respect for their privacy as any other citizen not suspected of wrongdoing," Melnick said.

Melnick also said the 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana allowed each patient every 15 days under the proposed bill was unreasonable.

"What are they supposed to do with the harvest excess -- destroy it?" she said.

Faith Benedetti, a patient advocate who served on the task force, also took issue with the possession limit as too restrictive.

"It assumes that the medicine will only be smoked, and does not take into consideration the many other methods of ingestion that a patient may choose," she said. "All of these alternate methods requires larger amounts of the raw herb to prepare."

She proposed an amendment to allow for more time to establish rules for the legislation.

The Health and Human Services Committee will hold a work session on the bill at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Room 209 of the Cross Building at the Capitol.

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford -- 620-7016

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