AUGUSTA — The state wants armed drug enforcement agents to accompany health inspectors when they visit the operations of licensed medical marijuana caregivers, a Department of Health and Human Services official told lawmakers Tuesday.

Kenneth Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, said the agency knows that some of Maine’s approximately 600 caregivers are breaking the law by growing and selling marijuana beyond the limits of their licenses. He said unarmed DHHS staff might not be safe visiting such an operation.

“We know that there are caregivers that are not complying in any way, shape or form with the regulations, who are making a lot more money than they’re allowed to, who are caring for many more patients,” he said. “In those situations, I don’t want to put a DHHS employee in harm’s way. These are criminals.”

The revelation drew a sharp response from the Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, an industry trade group.

Paul McCarrier, a lobbyist for the group and a licensed caregiver, said Albert was effectively asking the Legislature to sanction warrantless search and seizure.

He said teaming up with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to inspect suspicious grow operations without a warrant was a heavy-handed move that showed the state was viewing medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations as criminal enterprises.

“The MDEA is the same organization that has been putting people in cages and imprisoning them for years,” McCarrier said. “They don’t make a distinction between medical marijuana and marijuana. To them it’s all criminal activity.”

The dispute flared during a work session of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on L.D. 1739, a bill to make a variety of changes to regulations in the Maine Medical Marijuana Act of 2009. It includes a provision that would allow DHHS inspectors to investigate complaints about growers’ operations or dispensaries and to collect samples.

The inspection provision has triggered concerns by the caregivers group and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which cited privacy concerns and potential violations of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches and seizures. The concern intensified when Albert unexpectedly revealed that DHHS hoped to enter a partnership with the drug agency to conduct some inspections.

Albert was initially reluctant to disclose the proposed agreement, but he relented under pressure from Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea. She asked Albert why DHHS wouldn’t just refer questionable activity to law enforcement.

Albert said some inspections required law enforcement protection. He compared the marijuana inspections partnership to DHHS practice in regulating private child care facilities. In some instances, he said, police accompany DHHS staff when they are inspecting a provider who was not compliant.

Albert said police have no jurisdiction over the licensing of marijuana providers. He said the law prohibits regulators from inspecting grow operations for the number of plants, and includes other restrictions. Albert cited an opinion reiterating the prohibition from the state Attorney General’s Office.

Neither the Attorney General’s Office nor DHHS could immediately provide a copy of the opinion Tuesday.

In November, the DHHS sent a letter to registered caregivers stating that it had received “numerous concerns and complaints” by community leaders and code enforcement officers over a lack of documentation and unauthorized cultivation. The letter, sent Nov. 14, reminded the caregivers to abide by legal guidelines.

Under the law, caregivers can own six flowering marijuana plants per patient, and can sell up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana to up to five patients every 15 days.

McCarrier, the lobbyist, said caregivers were agreeable to complaint investigations, but not warrantless searches by drug agents.

He noted that the state proposed using caregiver licensing and registration fees to finance the proposed joint inspections. The state charges individual caregivers $300 per patient to provide medical marijuana. Each caregiver can have a maximum of five patients, meaning each caregiver can pay up to $1,500 annually.

The license and registration fees are funneled to the Maine Medical Marijuana Use Program, which provides DHHS funding for oversight. According to the most recent annual report to the Legislature, the marijuana program brought in about $612,000 in revenue in 2012.

There were 1,455 patients in 2012, a number that is expected to increase sharply in 2013 following last year’s implementation of rules expanding the number of health conditions that can legally be treated with medical marijuana.

It’s unclear if the proposal will impede the progress of the update legislation, introduced by DHHS and sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland. Several lawmakers indicated a willingness to proceed with the measure, but the committee delayed a vote on the proposal Tuesday.

The bill initially ran into fierce opposition over a proposed ban on the possession and sale of kief, resinous crystals from marijuana flowers that are rich in cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that has been shown to have a sedative effect, repressing convulsions and seizures. Parents of children suffering from a devastating form of epilepsy said the ban would deprive their children of a last-resort medication that has proven effective in managing seizures without the debilitating side effects of traditional pharmaceutical drugs.

The kief ban was removed from the bill Tuesday.

The bill would also allow nurse practitioners to prescribe medical marijuana, a provision that many supported during last week’s public hearing before the committee.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler