AUGUSTA — The economic and political tensions within Maine’s thriving medical marijuana industry were on full display Friday as patients, suppliers and regulators sparred over proposals by the LePage administration to add teeth to rules governing marijuana caregivers.

In a sweeping set of proposals released this week, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services seeks to limit the amount of marijuana caregivers can distribute to patients, allow the department to investigate caregiver operations and stiffen penalties for violations.

The proposals also would require caregivers – individuals permitted to grow and dispense medical marijuana – who cultivate it for family members to register with the state.

While representatives for larger, more tightly regulated marijuana dispensaries praised the proposals as “leveling the playing field,” caregivers and patients called them regulatory overreach. Opponents also blasted the DHHS for introducing them so late in the legislative session and without consulting the caregiver community.

“Caregivers are farmers, running small businesses, serving sick people. We are not criminals,” said Steve Ruhl, a caregiver and board member of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine.

Maine is among a handful of states with a regulated system allowing patients certified by doctors for medical pot use to obtain the drug. The system, endorsed by voters in 2009, is structured around two types of suppliers: eight tightly regulated dispensaries that can grow pot for an unlimited number of patients, and smaller but less-regulated caregivers restricted to growing for five patients at a time. Caregivers currently supply an estimated 70 percent of the medical pot in Maine.

But the two-tiered system – with eight larger dispensaries competing against an estimated 1,700 caregivers – has led to friction within the industry.

Caregivers have portrayed dispensaries as corporate operatives, while dispensary operators bemoan that they are subject to higher scrutiny and regulation than caregivers who largely fly “under the radar.”

“The bottom line is, we are operating on an unlevel playing field with caregivers,” said Laura Harper, a lobbyist with the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators.

DHHS and law enforcement officials also have raised concerns that some caregivers may be selling pot illegally to non-patients.

The friction between the two sides of the industry and state regulators came to a head last month when DHHS hired former law enforcement officers to investigate complaints against caregivers. Caregivers responded with alarm, saying DHHS overstepped its authority by implementing an inspection program without going through the public rulemaking process.


The DHHS bill considered Friday, L.D. 1392, aims to resolve any uncertainty about whether the department has the authority to conduct periodic inspections and testing of caregiver operations and dispensaries. The bill also would set fines of $200 to $500 a day for civil violations of the law and fines of up to $1,000 a day for failing to register with the state as a primary caregiver.

Bill sponsor Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, raised concerns about some aspects of the department’s bill – including the process of fining or penalizing caregivers – but supports giving the department “the teeth and the ability” to force compliance with the law.

“I think it is a good program, but I think more oversight of this program will only make it better,” Sanderson told her colleagues on the Health and Human Services Committee. “The vast majority of individuals who operate under this program are doing so legally, but we do have some that are not and they are taking advantage of it. And that shines a pall on those who are operating legally.”

Opponents shared a long list of concerns with the committee, beginning with how the lengthy bill was printed only days before the public hearing.

However, caregiver Garry Robitaille, of Growing Compassion, said DHHS never mentioned hiring contractors to investigate complaints during three meetings of a department-caregiver forum the Legislature created to improve communication. He and others accused the department of never seriously discussing with the caregiver community how to address the abuses of the few that threaten to mar the reputation of the entire industry.

“This (bill) today is more of a power grab than regulation,” Robitaille said.

Other speakers were upset about potential restrictions on caregivers’ ability to donate excess marijuana to patients who are not their clients, a new limit of 2.5 ounces per patient every 15 days, and requiring caregivers to register with the state if they are growing marijuana for a family member certified to use the drug.

Samantha Brown, a Berwick mother who uses cannabis therapy to treat her 3-year-old daughter’s severe seizures, said preventing donations will make it harder for some patients to obtain the drug. She also worried that the new DHHS registration and inspection requirements could make it too costly for her to serve as her daughter’s caregiver.

“Thank you, but these regulations are not required to protect my child. I will,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana dispensary operators asked lawmakers to expand Sanderson’s bill to allow them to operate as for-profit companies rather than nonprofits. This would put dispensaries on par with caregivers, they said.

“It is unfair to hold one side of the market to a different standard than the other,” said Tim Smale, owner of Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn and president of the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators.

Earlier this year, four caregivers filed suit against DHHS in Kennebec County Superior Court claiming department officials failed to follow the proper administrative process when they created an online system for issuing medical marijuana certificates. Critics also worried that online registration could expose patients or caregivers to hackers.

In an effort to address some of those concerns, committee members later Friday endorsed an amended version of a separate bill, L.D. 560, stipulating DHHS cannot require health care providers to send personally identifiable information about medical marijuana patients over the Internet.

The committee is expected to work on the DHHS bill at a later date.