April 29, 2013

Legalized pot a risk to Maine medical dispensers

In an odd twist, pro-marijuana groups that provide the drug to patients fear for their future if a proposed bill passes.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA – Medical marijuana groups are wary of a bill that would legalize and tax marijuana in Maine.

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Estimates nationwide suggest if marijuana were legal, much of the profit gained by medical retailers and black-market criminals would disappear.

Joe Phelan / Kennebec Journal

Estimates nationwide suggest if marijuana were legal, much of the profit gained by medical retailers and black-market criminals would disappear.

That worries Glenn Peterson, the owner of Canuvo, a Biddeford medical-marijuana dispensary. He also serves as president of the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators, a trade group made up of five Maine dispensary owners.

Peterson said his group is concerned that the bill could "eliminate the medical marijuana industry" in Maine.

"I tend to be libertarian," he said. "On the other hand, I am quite protective of my dispensary."

Paul McCarrier, a lobbyist for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, an advocacy group for state-licensed caregivers who grow marijuana for small groups of medical patients, said his group is opposing the bill. McCarrier said it would favor dispensaries through licensing requirements, which could regulate small-time growers out of existence.

"The scope of protections for the individual to cultivate for themselves is too limited," he said.

The head of a national group that has supported the Maine bill and similar proposals nationwide says his organization has run into opposition to legalization from medical-marijuana groups in other states.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said that "probably the most vexing thing that we're facing right now (in pushing for legalization) is not the government or law enforcement agencies," he said. "It comes from, oddly put, anti-prohibitionists versus anti-prohibitionists."

The Maine bill to legalize marijuana, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is a sweeping measure. Chiefly, it would allow those 21 and older to possess 2½ ounces of marijuana and six plants.

It also would license cultivators, producers of products containing marijuana, retailers and laboratories, giving preference for licensing to officials at existing dispensaries.

David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nationwide group backing Russell's bill, said the provision to give preference to existing dispensaries was partially due to a drafting error in the bill, and he and Russell are open to amending it. Boyer has been lobbying legislators to support the bill.

Peterson said his group is lobbying for dispensaries to be granted automatic cultivation, retail and production licenses. He said it wouldn't oppose the bill then.

McCarrier said it isn't clear whether caregivers are on the same plane as dispensaries in the bill.

Russell's bill would assess a $50-per-ounce tax on cultivators, 75 percent of which Russell has said she wants to divert to the state's General Fund. Under her plan, the rest would go toward substance abuse programs, marijuana research and implementing the act.

Only two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana, and they did so in 2012 referendum votes. Marijuana possession is illegal under federal law, so even states with medical-marijuana programs are running afoul of that law.

In those states and others, legalization efforts ran into patches of opposition from medical-marijuana groups as well.

St. Pierre suggested that's because of economic protectionism: Simply put, when marijuana becomes legal, consumption will go up and prices will fall sharply.

McCarrier said it's not about protecting money, but protecting "the ability for caregivers to continue to operate."

Peterson said he sells marijuana for $360 per ounce; McCarrier said caregivers sell for between $175 and $250 per ounce. Street prices could be higher or lower.

A paper by a group of marijuana researchers published this month in the Oregon Law Review says the American marijuana market is a $30 billion industry annually. But modern farming techniques could supply that demand for "hundreds of millions of dollars."

(Continued on page 2)

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