One day more than a decade ago, shortly after he’d turned heads throughout Maine’s law enforcement community by publicly coming out in favor of legalized medical marijuana, one of Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion’s senior officers knocked on his office door.

“Tell me you’re not going to keep pursuing this,” the officer said pleadingly.

“It’s where we’ve got to go,” Dion replied with a smile.

He wasn’t kidding.

Some might call him window dressing for Northeast Patients Group, the nonprofit company that last week received four of six state permits to open medical marijuana dispensaries throughout Maine.

But Dion, who will have a seat at the table when Northeast Patients Group’s board of directors holds its first meeting Friday, promises that his influence over Maine’s fledgling marijuana-distribution system will extend far beyond the company’s letterhead.

“I’m not planning on dropping in twice a year for lunch and asking, ‘How are we doing?’ ” Dion said over a cup of coffee this week. “I want to make sure that when this begins, we begin it right.”

His new cannabis connection aside, these are interesting times for Dion.

He’ll step down as sheriff at the end of this year after three consecutive four-year terms, ending a law enforcement career that he began as a Portland police officer in 1977.

Armed with a 2005 law degree from the University of Maine School of Law, he’s setting up a legal practice on India Street in Portland with law-school classmate and friend Jonathan Berry. (A running joke with the much-younger Berry is that the practice will give Dion, 55, “someplace to go when I’m 70.”)

And now, as Portland and other communities scramble to make way for the medical-marijuana dispensaries that voters approved last fall, Dion has become the first law enforcement official in Maine — if not the nation — to go into the pot-selling business.

“I don’t know that I’d care to put myself in the same position,” mused Camden Police Chief Philip Roberts, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

Roberts, who works 20 minutes up the road from a site in Thomaston where Northeast Patients Group tentatively plans a dispensary, said his organization opposed last fall’s successful ballot question. Its passage made Maine the third state, along with New Mexico and Rhode Island, to implement a system of state-licensed medical-marijuana dispensaries.

And while the chiefs accept the reality that 59 percent of Maine’s voters decided it was a good idea, Roberts said, Dion still stands alone in his all-out embrace of the new law.

“It’s the law, but that doesn’t mean we like it,” Roberts said. “I don’t know of any other police chiefs or sheriffs who support it.”

Dion, long considered a far-lefty in a profession where political views typically skew to the right, has no qualms about standing alone in his belief that there’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with making marijuana available to sick people who can legitimately benefit from it.

Back in 1998, just one day after Dion declared his support for Maine’s first medical marijuana initiative, the state’s 15 other county sheriffs announced in no uncertain terms that Dion spoke for nobody but himself. (The news story quite correctly labeled Dion a “maverick.”)

Sixty-one percent of Maine’s voters agreed with Dion that year and made medicinal pot legal. Problem was, there still was no way for patients to get their hands on it legally.

Two years later, with the help of then-state Sen. Ann Rand, D-Portland, there was Dion pushing for an outside-the-box solution to the supply problem: Rather than just torch marijuana that police confiscated, why not give it to sick people who could use it to allay their nausea, regain their appetites and otherwise offset the symptoms of various illnesses?

“That went nowhere,” Dion recalled.

But that was then — and this is now.

Dion’s long-held position on medicinal marijuana — that compassion for those who need it trumps any concerns about how it meshes (or not) with other state and federal drug laws — has clearly gained traction since he first went out on that thin limb 12 years ago.

Fourteen states now recognize pot as a legitimate and legal medicine. What’s more, the Obama administration (unlike its predecessor) has called a de facto truce between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and states whose pro-medicinal-marijuana laws remain in conflict with federal drug statutes.

Hence Dion has no qualms about jumping in once again — this time with both feet.

He thinks, as does Northeast Patients Group Executive Director Becky DeKeuster, that it’s important to have someone with a law enforcement background on the company’s board, to instill public confidence and immediately open a line of communication with those still-skeptical sheriffs and police chiefs.

“I hope to be that bridge person,” Dion said.

He’ll also play an obvious role in devising a security plan, not just for protecting the product, but also for screening prospective staffers. (The latter’s importance was underscored by this headline Tuesday from the Maine State Police: “Owner of Rockland Meth Clinic Arrested” for alleged possession of cocaine.)

Finally, Dion hopes to dispel the lingering notion that smoking medicinal marijuana is nothing more than a party in disguise.

He still remembers the terminally ill, retired fire chief in the midcoast who told him during a past campaign, “Sheriff, I don’t know what it means, what’s that word, to ‘catch a buzz.’ When I take marijuana, I just feel normal again.”

“The problem is, unlike other medicines that come into our lives wearing lab coats and double-blind tests, marijuana comes to us wearing blue jeans, T-shirts and rock concerts,” Dion said. “There needs to be more public education around all of this.”

What Dion won’t do, contrary to some of the whispering that greeted his new gig, is get rich from this venture. While Northeast Patients Group’s bylaws allow for board members to be compensated, he said he won’t accept a nickel.

“In my mind, it’s no different from if I was asked to be on the board of directors for the YMCA,” Dion said. “I don’t want to create a perception, real or otherwise, that my opinion, my guidance or my statements about dispensary activity are somehow diminished by the fact that I’m taking a check. That doesn’t work for me.”

Last week, as the news of his latest affiliation set the tongues to wagging once again, someone slipped a note under Dion’s office door. He took it as a sign that the times, even within law enforcement, are indeed changing.

“Good job,” the note read. “Keep it up.”

“I have no idea who wrote it,” Dion said. “But it was nice to hear.”


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]