March 19, 2010

Panel members reach agreement on rules for medical marijuana use

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee reached an agreement Thursday on implementing Maine's law expanding the rights of medical marijuana users.

Advocates who brought the initiative before voters in November were satisfied but unenthusiastic with the final product.

"It's livable," Jonathan Leavitt, executive director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative, said of L.D. 1811, which was supported by the nine members of the Health and Human Services Committee.

The committee authorized a maximum of eight nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries around the state, one for each established public health zone in Maine.

The dispensaries would replace the informal system that has been in place since 1999, which has allowed patients -- with doctors' support -- to grow and use limited amounts of marijuana.

Under the bill, patients and caregivers would have to register with the Department of Health and Human Services and show state-issued identity cards authorizing them to use marijuana. That requirement has been contentious.

"That is a huge invasion of privacy for those patients and caregivers who prefer to keep their use of medical marijuana between them and their doctors," said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

Her group has argued that registration should be optional, as the citizens' initiative suggested.

As part of the registration process, patients would tell the DHHS if they plan to grow as many as five plants (the most allowed under law), appoint a caregiver to grow marijuana for them, or buy marijuana from a specific dispensary.

Patients who want to change their status -- for instance, after a homegrown crop fails -- would need the department's permission.

The legislation would not set any age restrictions for medical marijuana, but the committee supported a suggestion from the Maine Medical Association to require a doctor to consult a pediatrician and a psychiatrist before prescribing marijuana to anyone younger than 18.

Those specialists would be chosen from a new advisory committee, which will compile a list of conditions deemed appropriate for medical marijuana treatment.

Many patients and caregivers have opposed a recommendation by a state task force to allow the DHHS to inspect the home of anybody who grows medical marijuana, saying they fear the authority could be abused. Lawmakers have said it is a necessity.

"If you're growing a substance that is still against federal law, you bloody well should be subject to inspection," said Rep. Sarah Lewin, R-Eliot.

The committee's bill would exempt from inspection anyone who grows marijuana for two or fewer patients. Dispensaries would be subject to inspection at any time and would have to pay an annual registration fee, set by the DHHS.

The committee also voted to make the database of marijuana patients and caregivers held by the DHHS confidential.

The Legislature could consider the bill as early as next week, and debate is expected.

"It is my personal belief that the people of the state of Maine will rue the day they voted for this," Lewin said. "I am still not convinced that we are not going to see a whole lot more criminal activity because of this. I will feel very free to say that on the floor of the House."

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Ethan Wilensky-Lanford can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:


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