AUGUSTA – The House gave final approval Monday to a bill establishing a medical marijuana dispensary and registration system in Maine.

After a short debate, the House voted 128-17 in favor of the bill, which expands the existing medical marijuana law. In a November referendum, 59 percent of state voters supported allowing nonprofit dispensaries.

The bill makes several changes to the measure approved by voters.

n It limits, at least for the first year, the number of dispensaries in Maine to one each in eight “health districts.”

n It gives the state Department of Health and Human Services until July 1 to adopt rules establishing application and renewal fees for patients, caregivers and dispensaries. Dispensary fees will be set by the department, but will be no less than $5,000 and no greater than $15,000 per year.

n It allows marijuana to be sold to patients in food and “other preparations.”

n It will eventually require all medical marijuana patients to register with the state. All patients will be required to register by January 2011.

That change concerns the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which believes it violates patient-doctor privacy.

“Cancer and AIDS patients using medical marijuana for months or years will now have to register with the state or risk prosecution,” said MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows. “It should be voluntary for patients, especially when state law conflicts with federal law.”

Kathy Bubar, who served on the medical marijuana task force last winter, said the biggest challenge will be setting guidelines for determining which dispensaries can open in the first year.

“We’ve had a ton of inquiries,” she said.

But the eight-dispensary limit means that heavily populated health districts such as York and Cumberland counties will get only one each. And large geographical areas such as central Maine — defined as Kennebec and Somerset counties — will also be allowed only one dispensary.

After the first year, the department will review the dispensary system and decide whether to allow additional ones to open, Bubar said.

Although passage of the bill was virtually assured Monday, the House debate featured passionate testimony on both sides.

Rep. Sally Lewin, R-Eliot, said she worries that because marijuana is illegal on the federal level, the state should not expand access by setting up dispensaries.

“In my judgment, this is a bill to legalize marijuana use,” she said. “I believe it’s rather like Swiss cheese, full of holes.”

But Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, shared a personal story about her daughter’s battle with cancer and how marijuana helped her cope with the nausea caused by intensive chemotherapy.

“There are real people out there for whom this herb has been a valuable resource,” she said.

The original law passed in 1999 allowed patients to grow marijuana themselves or designate someone to grow it for them. Advocates said that left patients no option but to buy it on the black market.

After a successful signature drive and a low-key campaign, Maine voters supported creation of a dispensary system.

Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, voted to support the final measure, but said changes will be needed.

“I do feel sorry for anyone on the health and human services (committee) for the next 50 years,” he said. “They are going to get this bill back time after time after time.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@centralmaine.com