State officials plan to accept applications starting this week from Mainers who want to register as medical marijuana users under the state’s new distribution system.

Some who are using marijuana under the current rules say they are in no hurry to put their names on that list, however.

Rules created in the wake of last November’s statewide referendum allow for eight nonprofit marijuana dispensaries to be set up in the state, including one each in Cumberland and York counties. Potential dispensary operators have until June 25 to file applications and business plans under guidelines posted last week.

The rules also say all individuals who want to use medical marijuana must register with the state by January. Applications will be posted online as soon as today, said Catherine Cobb, director of licensing for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

“I’ve heard estimates of 2,000 to 20,000 (potential applicants), so we don’t know what to expect,” Cobb said.

Each applicant needs to submit a doctor’s recommendation to use the drug for symptoms of cancer, HIV or one of several other qualified health conditions. Those who apply and qualify will get registration cards starting in July that entitle them to possess and use marijuana under state law.

The registration card is intended to help legal users stay out of trouble with police officers or employers who might find out about the drug use. “I do think the registry system and registration cards offer further protection for citizens,” Cobb said.

Medical marijuana users and advocates have supported the idea of a registration card for those who want it. But some say the requirement that all users must register is an invasion of their privacy.

“People who take OxyContin don’t have to be on a registry,” said Eric Friberg of South Portland, who uses marijuana to treat his own medical condition and provides the drug to other patients who don’t grow their own. “I feel more like a criminal now than I did before this law was passed, and that’s how all my patients feel.”

Friberg said the law that voters approved last fall was intended to expand access to the medicine and provide more protection to users, not place new burdens on people, some of whom are terminally ill.

Friberg said a registration card may actually have helped him two months ago when Scarborough police confiscated his marijuana after a traffic stop. “But, at the same time, I don’t want to be on any list and most of my patients don’t want to be on any list, either.”

One reason for the reluctance is that, technically, medical marijuana use is still a federal crime. The Obama Administration has discouraged federal drug agents from devoting resources to medical use in states such as Maine, but there is still concern about how the information about users will be used over time.

“We feel the registration requirement infringes on doctor-patient privacy,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “Given that medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, it’s understandable that someone might not want to register in the state’s database.”

Bellows said the MCLU is still hoping the state will make the registration voluntary. “It’s an unfortunate reversal of both a decade of practice and the will of the voters,” she said.

Last week, the state posted guidelines for the eight new marijuana dispensaries expected to open for business in January. It costs $15,000 to apply, although all but $1,000 will be returned if an application is rejected.

The guidelines include standards for security and state reporting, and say dispensaries have to be at least 500 feet away from a school, among other things. It describes how applications will be scored and how state officials will choose one operator for eight different service areas in the state.

“I’ve heard estimates of as many as 60 groups contemplating applying,” Cobb said. Applicants will be expected to identify their proposed locations, but won’t be expected to get local operating permits until after they are chosen for a state license, she said.

Biddeford, South Portland and some other Maine cities and towns have established temporary moratoriums to ban marijuana dispensaries in their communities at least until the rules and siting standards are clarified.

“We’re watching it,” said Penny Littell, director of planning in Portland. Current city zoning doesn’t permit medical marijuana dispensaries, she said. Littell said she is monitoring the rules and the application process, and no one has yet proposed opening a city dispensary.

For more information about the state rules and applications, go to: http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/dlrs/

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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