March 31, 2013

End result of pot law has some surprises

Ambiguity surrounding medical marijuana can sometimes leave property owners and law enforcers in a kind of limbo.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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The woman also fears what would happen if she and her husband tried to sell their condo. Would they have to disclose what is going on in the basement?

Linda Gifford, legal counsel for the Maine Association of Realtors, says that question has come up often lately. The answer, she said, is "No."

Under Maine law, Gifford said, "sellers only have to disclose material defects in the physical condition of the property."

Jennifer Defillipp, a Portland-area real estate agent who is also a landlord for several rental properties, said the example in the West End exposes what she called a "slippery slope."

"I'm a landlord and if I don't want a tenant to grow, do I have rights? No one knows," she said. "I think there needs to be some tighter regulations and a better sense of who has the right to regulate."

Defillipp said she even voted for the expansion of Maine's medical marijuana law.

"I don't think anyone was thinking about these things," she said.

The usual response for people who have complaints is to contact police, but police say the loosely regulated system has made their jobs harder.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his officers have been working with the West End couple to address their concerns, but no laws are being broken, so their authority is limited.

Sauschuck said the problems with little regulation are bigger than just landlord-tenant disputes. Often, his officers waste time and resources investigating marijuana growing operations only to find out that they are legal.

"We don't know ahead of time because they are not required to register," he said. "If you're going to have this law, there should be ways to enforce it."

Absent any criminal activity, Gifford said tenants who live near a medical marijuana grower still have valid safety concerns if the location is disclosed.

Diane Goldstein, a retired lieutenant with the Redondo Beach Police Department in California, who represents an advocacy group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said legalization would actually help police officers and improve safety.

"The drug war hasn't worked. Criminalization has not worked," she said. "When Prohibition ended and we created a system to tax and regulate alcohol, things improved. The same momentum exists for marijuana."

EVOLVING LAWS

The unintended consequences in Maine are exacerbated by two facts: marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government and there is no state playbook for how to roll out a successful, well-regulated medical marijuana program.

California was the first state to pass a medical marijuana law in 1996. Since then, 19 states have followed. Last November, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana.

Some in Maine want to go down that road as well.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion of Portland, a former sheriff, would eliminate any restrictions on physicians who certify medical marijuana patients. Currently, patients are certified only if they meet one of eight specific conditions.

"We don't tell doctors what they can and can't do for any other type of medication. Why should we for medical marijuana?" Dion said when introducing his bill.

Some doctors, such as Brian Pierce of Rockport, stay away from recommending medical marijuana for patients. He said he's not convinced of its benefits.

"The enthusiasm seems to exceed the evidence at this point," he said.

Gordon Smith, director of the Maine Medical Association, a lobbying organization that represents physicians, said the conditions for medical marijuana use are already very liberal.

"We don't want to allow the program to become a front for recreational use," he said.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, also of Portland, would eliminate any ambiguity by legalizing use and possession of marijuana for adults 21 and older. It would direct the state to license and regulate marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities and testing facilities, and it would enact an excise tax of $50 per ounce on wholesale sales. The bill also would allow the state to begin regulating the cultivation, processing and distribution of industrial hemp.

"By regulating marijuana like alcohol we can take sales out of the underground market, generate millions of dollars in new tax revenue, and allow law enforcement to focus on serious crimes," said David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Those two bills have not yet been debated or voted on.

Craven said the Health and Human Services committee could amend any bill that comes before it. If it looks like Dion's bill to expand conditions has momentum, lawmakers could try to write tighter regulations into that bill. If Russell's bill is approved, the same thing could happen, although that law would need voter approval.

Craven said increased enforcement would come at a cost but also said there is a skill in overseeing marijuana growing and distribution.

"I'm not sure we have those skills," she said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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