November 11, 2012

Director of Maine’s medical marijuana program dismissed

Advocates are concerned John Thiele’s ouster may signal a shift in the direction of state policy.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The head of Maine's medical marijuana program announced at a public meeting that he has been terminated from his position, according to two people who attended the meeting.

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A jar of marijuana labeled “Certified for Medical Purposes.”

Press Herald file photo/Gabe Souza

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John Thiele, who worked in the Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, shared the news Friday at a Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine event, in advance of the group's Home Grown Maine expo Saturday in Portland.

"This is not good news for Maine's medical marijuana program," said Chris Kenoyer, a licensed caregiver who attended the meeting. Kenoyer said Thiele was "very responsive and respectful" and was the go-to person for questions about state laws on the subject.

Rep. Mark Dion, who worked with Thiele both as a lawmaker and as an attorney who represents medical marijuana caregivers, confirmed that Thiele had been let go.

"I had actually heard it in the community sometime in the last week," the Portland Democrat said Sunday. "I always thought he was helpful, prompt. I was surprised."

Neither Thiele nor his boss, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, returned calls for comment Sunday. The department has not publicly announced Thiele's dismissal.

Kenoyer said the reason Thiele gave for his dismissal Friday was that he had become "too friendly with patients and caregivers." Dion characterized things slightly differently: "There was thought that he was acting more as a social worker than a regulator," Dion said.

In a post advertising Saturday's event on the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine website, Thiele was listed as "the patient-friendly former director of the Maine DHHS medical use of marijuana program."

Maine voters legalized marijuana for medical purposes through a citizens initiative back in 1999, but the program has undergone a significant expansion in the past few years. In 2009, voters overwhelmingly passed a law that created nonprofit marijuana dispensaries, allowed certified caregivers to grow marijuana for as many as five patients and expanded the acceptable conditions under which a patient could be certified.

By most estimates, the program has grown considerably, although the state has no way to track the number of medical marijuana patients. Another new law, passed last year, made registration voluntary, so there is no way to know how many patients have been certified or how many doctors are certifying patients. Some have argued that fewer restrictions have made the system ripe for abuse, especially because one of the new conditions -- intractable pain -- is subjective.

Maine doctors now have sole discretion over whether to certify patients, and some are becoming de facto specialists. Dr. Dustin Sulak, a Falmouth medical marijuana practitioner, told the Portland Press Herald last month that he had certified "thousands" of patients. His practice even offered student discounts for medical marijuana evaluations.

In an interview with the Press Herald about a month ago, Thiele said that even though the program had become less regulated in recent years, it was well run. He also said his office recently drafted new rules to improve the program further, but it doesn't appear those rules have been implemented yet.

Kenoyer said he and other medical marijuana advocates are concerned that Thiele's dismissal could signal a shift in the direction of state policy.

Dion said the rulemaking process has been slower than expected, but he doesn't think things are on hold.

"If there was a shift in policy, I would think there would be some communication," he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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