Maine is proposing new medical marijuana rules that would tighten oversight of caregivers and patients who grow their own plants.

Under the proposal, caregivers and patients who grow their own marijuana would have to submit to unannounced inspections by state enforcement agents if the Department of Health and Human Services had received a complaint of violation, and if they refused – as some do without consequences under current law – they could face suspension or revocation of their state license, civil fines or even referral to law enforcement.

According to lawyers who work with caregivers, the department is trying to give its inspectors more power to enforce the state’s rules, establish penalties for violations, and close loopholes that criminal defense attorneys have used to keep their clients out of trouble. But the caregivers’ lawyers say the new rules go too far, making it possible for an innocent mistake to cost a caregiver a lot of money, their license to work or even their freedom.

“They’re doing a really sneaky thing here,” said Logan Perkins, a Belfast defense attorney who represents caregivers. “They can go after you civilly, which usually means fines, licensure action, forfeiture of your lights, your grow space, even the property where you’re growing, and go after you with a criminal prosecution, which can put your ass in jail. They’re trying to do both at once.”

Perkins joined two other lawyers who specialize in cannabis related law, Matt Dubois of Bangor and Chris Gagne of McCabe Law in Portland, to talk about the proposed rule changes at the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine headquarters in Winthrop on Monday. The gathering, which drew about 100 people, was held in advance of today’s public hearing on the changes, which begins at 9 a.m. at Augusta Civic Center.

The association is urging caregivers to turn out in large numbers to prove that the legalization of recreational marijuana for those 21 and over cannot replace medical marijuana.

“The thing we’re running into with the department is, why do we need a medical program along with recreational?” said Catherine Lewis, a caregiver who is board chairwoman for the trade association group Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. “We need to have those answers and (the department) needs to hear them. They need to know that you still care about your patients and about your role as caregivers. It’s critical.”

The public has until June 26 to submit written comments about the proposed rule changes, according to the DHHS website. The department may revise the rules based on the comments, DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said. Both the commissioner – a position now held by acting Commissioner Ricker Hamilton – and Attorney General Janet Mills must sign off on the proposal before it could go into effect.

Maine’s largest medical marijuana dispensary, Wellness Connection, applauded the proposed rules. The state’s eight dispensaries must comply with strict state regulations, and submit to regular unannounced inspections, while most caregivers do not, which isn’t fair, Wellness Connection lobbyist Dan Walker said. Wellness CEO Patricia Rosi said she was glad DHHS is finally “tightening up the rules.”

It “will provide much needed guidance and predictability for patients, dispensaries, and caregivers,” Rosi said in a written statement Tuesday.

The new rules would prohibit caregivers from leasing cultivation space to other caregivers, limit the amount of marijuana they can sell to a patient to 2.5 ounces every 15 days just like dispensaries must do and make them report how many patients they treat annually, which some caregivers believe is one way to identify those caregivers who get around the five-patients-at-a-time limit by repeatedly swapping out short-term patients.

Perkins believes the new rules would force a caregiver who “cycles” that fifth-patient slot to get rid of any marijuana grown to treat one patient before he or she could take on a new patient. Based on the time it takes to grow a new marijuana crop, that would effectively cap the number of patients a caregiver could treat to 10-15 a year.

The new rules also would require medical providers who certify patients to have a bona fide doctor-patient relationship, prohibiting things like certifying over the phone or event-oriented certifications out of a hotel room rented out near a festival, but could prove a real hardship for homebound patients or a very sick patient living on one of Maine’s isolated islands, the lawyers said.

Department officials wouldn’t talk about the proposed rules, or what prompted their introduction now, in a year when lawmakers have focused on legalizing recreational use of marijuana for those 21 and over. Some have worried lawmakers plan to disband the medical program. The lack of information about the changes, which were introduced a month ago with little state discussion, has left caregivers uncertain about how the rules would affect them.

Dubois worries most about the loss of legal protections for caregivers who violate the rules.

“Under these rules, the second you do anything wrong at all, the entire operation turns criminal,” said Dubois. “That fence around your grow (area) an inch short? Under these rules, one caregiver might get a correction plan while the other one might get jailed as a drug trafficker. It’s a crazy lunatic way of dealing with a regulatory violation. When’s the last time you’ve heard of a restaurant owner getting jailed for a health violation?”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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