A request to Congress by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for authority to prosecute state medical marijuana providers is raising alarm in Maine’s medical marijuana community, with one leader calling the potential move “downright frightening” for the tens of thousands of medical cannabis patients and growers in Maine.

The state’s congressional delegation also strongly opposed Sessions’ request to Congress – made public this week – to lift the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana providers acting in compliance with state laws. It rekindled questions about whether the Trump administration will invoke federal prohibitions against marijuana use that conflict with recent state initiatives to legalize medical and recreational use of the drug.

If Congress supports the request from Sessions, thousands of medical marijuana providers and related businesses that support an estimated 50,000 medical marijuana patients in Maine could face federal criminal prosecution or other sanctions.

In a May letter, first obtained by Tom Angell of Massroots.com and verified independently by The Washington Post, Sessions argued that if Congress continues to prohibit federal spending on medical marijuana prosecution, it would “inhibit (the Justice Department’s) authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act.”

He continues: “I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives.”

CALL FOR STATES TO FIGHT BACK

Catherine Lewis, a caregiver from central Maine and board chairwoman for the trade association group Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, called on Maine’s congressional delegation to support the medical program. She says it has allowed many patients to use cannabis to successfully treat medical conditions and to stop using pharmaceutical drugs.

“It appears that now is the time that all of the states that have medical programs need to get together and send a clear, concise message to the federal government stating that their intentions are unacceptable, that it’s the individual state’s right to govern themselves and that the federal government needs to get on the same page,” she said.

Lewis – who called Sessions and the Trump administration “uneducated” for associating marijuana with the opiate addiction epidemic – said Sessions’ request wasn’t a surprise, but was met with dismay and disappointment by caregivers and patients with whom she has spoken.

“It’s downright frightening. Without us here, there are people who will suffer, there are children who will have untreatable seizures,” she said. “There will be parents and grandparents who could go to jail for doing nothing more than trying to saved loves ones.”

Timothy Smale, operator of the Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn and president of the Maine Dispensary Operators Association, declined to comment Tuesday, saying he needed to do more research into Sessions’ request.

Paul T. McCarrier is a medical marijuana caregiver from Knox who also serves as president of Legalize Maine, which led the effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Maine. The organization’s website states that marijuana will become a new billion-dollar industry that has the potential to benefit small artisan farmers.

“We hope that President Trump will respect the 10th Amendment (states’ rights) and that medical marijuana will be recognized as a boon to reducing addiction to opioids,” McCarrier said Tuesday evening.

He said Trump pledged to supporters during his campaign that he would respect states’ rights to govern themselves, “but when his attorney general says just the opposite, it’s disappointing.”

MAINE CAREGIVER NUMBERS SOAR

Maine, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1976, has one of the longest-running medical marijuana programs in the country. The state first legalized medical marijuana in 1999, then expanded the program in 2010 to create state-licensed dispensaries and allow caregivers to serve patients outside of their own families. Last November, residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana, and state lawmakers are in the process of developing rules and regulations for that program.

Mainers last year spent $24.8 million on non-edible medical marijuana at dispensaries, a 5.3 percent jump over 2015, according to data from Maine Revenue Services. Records show residents spent another $2 million on edibles at the eight state-licensed dispensaries.

Medical marijuana patients spent $27.3 million on cannabis products from caregivers in 2015, according to estimates by Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine.

In Maine, the number of caregivers – the small-scale growers licensed by the state to provide marijuana for up to five certified patients – skyrocketed in 2016, from 2,277 in January to 3,244 in December, a 42.5 percent increase, state records show. The exact number of patients is unknown, but it could have been as high as 51,324 in 2016, state records show, a 36 percent year-over-year jump.

A leader for NORML, a national group that lobbies for marijuana policy reform, said it is “high time that members of Congress take action to comport federal law with majority public opinion and the plant’s rapidly changing legal and cultural status.”

“Jeff Sessions is advocating for a return to the failed policies of the ‘Just Say No’ era – policies that resulted in the arrests of millions of law-abiding citizens who possessed personal use amounts of marijuana and that prohibited physicians from recommending cannabis therapy to their patients,” Paul Armentano, NORML deputy director, said in an email. “At a time when the majority of states now regulate marijuana use, and where six out of 10 voters endorse legalizing the plant’s use by adults, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal or cultural perspective to try to put this genie back in the bottle.”

CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION OBJECTS

Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin expressed opposition to Sessions’ request to undo protections, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, that have been in place since 2014 to prevent federal funds from being used to stop states from implementing medical marijuana programs.

“Sen. King recognized the growing body of evidence suggesting that cannabinoids can be effective in treating a number of conditions, such as epilepsy and cancer, and he is troubled by the administration’s recent statements indicating a desire to crack down on states where medical marijuana has been legalized,” Scott Ogden, a spokesman for King, said in a statement. “He believes the federal government should not interfere with state laws on this issue, and instead give states the ability to make and implement policy based on the wishes of their citizens.”

Collins, a Republican, issued a statement through her spokeswoman.

“As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Collins has supported amendments to the annual funding bills to prohibit the Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services from interfering with state-level medical marijuana programs,” Annie Clark said in an email.

Poliquin, a Republican who represents Maine’s 2nd District, supports and has voted for the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment.

“He supports and respects states’ rights to determine their own, constitutionally sound laws,” Brendan Conley, press secretary for Poliquin, said in a statement. “Congress has acted in bipartisan fashion to support this amendment, and Maine voters have spoken at the state level in support of specific state policy on this matter.”

AG PROPOSAL called ‘NONSENSICAL’

Citing the state’s November recreational marijuana vote, Pingree, D-1st District, said Mainers have “moved beyond dated drug policies.”

“Marijuana dispensaries throughout Maine have already opened their doors, and the attorney general’s proposal would cost our state thousands in new revenue,” Pingree said in statement. “The attorney general’s proposal is nonsensical and ignores the fact that current policies on marijuana have been incredibly costly to taxpayers and ruined the lives of thousands of non-violent offenders.”

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, was a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act during the last Congress. The CARERS Act, which expired at the conclusion of the last Congress, would have recognized states’ responsibility to set medical marijuana policy and eliminate potential federal prosecution, rescheduled marijuana to recognize there is an accepted medical use, and expanded opportunities for research, among other changes. Ogden said King would again co-sponsor the legislation if it is reintroduced by Sens. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.

Pingree also co-sponsored the CARERS Act.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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