June 8, 2010

Medical pot users: Proposed fees too high

Some say the fees could encourage people to buy drugs illegally rather than register as legal users.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - Maine's medical marijuana law allows Rebecca Pickett of South Portland to cope with daily migraines and stay within the law.

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information or to submit comments, go to www.maine.gov/dhhs/dlrs/rulemaking/proposed.shtml, or call 287-9300.

But Pickett and others who rely on marijuana said Monday that proposed fees and restrictions could limit the benefits of the drug and force some people to get marijuana on the black market.

"I experience the worst migraine of my life every day of my life," Pickett said. "I am what I am and I can do what I do because of medical marijuana."

Pickett was one of several disabled or ill Mainers who spoke during a public hearing on new marijuana rules proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The rules will create the guidelines for a statewide patient registry and a network of eight licensed marijuana dispensaries that were mandated by Maine voters last fall.

Many who spoke Monday said they appreciate the state's effort to help them find relief from chronic pain, nausea and other conditions. But they called for changes when the final rules are rolled out at the end of this month.

Most argued that the proposed fees are too high. A patient would have to pay $100 a year to register. A caregiver, someone who grows marijuana for other patients, would have to pay $300 a year. Patients who are enrolled in MaineCare would get a $25 discount.

"This is just excessive," said Nancy Cousins of Windham. Cousins has multiple sclerosis and, like many of those who spoke Monday, lives on disability benefits.

"MS lasts a lifetime. I don't think a one-year anything is applicable in my case," Cousins said.

Mark Bohurjak of Augusta said he couldn't afford the fee, either, but he can't afford not to use marijuana.

"If I took the (other) medications they want to give me, I would be a vegetable," he said. "This gives me a chance to have a life."

Some said the fees could encourage people to buy drugs illegally rather than register as legal users.

Catherine Cobb, director of the program for the DHHS, said the fees will be re-examined but the department has to cover the cost of running the program.

"The way the referendum passed, this program has to be self-supporting," Cobb said. In addition to the patients and caregivers paying fees, the eight dispensaries would each have to pay a $15,000 annual fee.

Other changes requested during Monday's hearing included clearer guidelines for the number of marijuana plants a grower is allowed to have, better protection of confidential medical information, and more controls to prevent high prices and encourage home-grown competition in the market.

For Pickett, the biggest problem is a new limit on how much of the drug she and her caregivers can buy -- 2.5 ounces every 15 days.

Pickett, who is 19, was nearly killed eight years ago, when she skied across a patch of ice, hit a tree and fractured her skull. Today, she is nearly blind and has severe, daily headaches, she said.

"I can keep my pain under control if I smoke regularly," she said. "Two-point-five ounces won't be enough to last 15 days. The only thing that gets me through are my caregivers and my medicine."

The 2.5-ounce limit is one of the details spelled out in the state law, however, so it would take the Legislature to change that, Cobb said.

Maine is one of 14 states that allow medical use of marijuana, and one of the first three to create formal, regulated systems to make the drug available.

State officials will accept written comments on the proposed rules until 5 p.m. June 17.


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com


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