A bill to reform the state’s medical marijuana program appeared headed to Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday.

The second major piece of cannabis legislation to pass both houses of the Legislature in as many days would expand the number of people who can qualify for a medical marijuana card, increase the number of state-licensed dispensaries and allow registered caregivers to see more patients, hire more workers and run storefront operations without the threat of legal reprisal. LePage has 10 days to act on the bill once it lands on his desk, although its supporters expect him to veto it.

The status of the bill and whether it needs additional enactment votes was unclear early Thursday, as lawmakers worked late into the night debating whether to extend the session. Enactment votes are procedural actions taken before a bill can advance to the governor.

The Senate voted 25-10 in favor of the bill on Wednesday. The proposal was approved by the House with ease on Friday, without debate or even a roll call.

“Years back, when I first encountered the idea of medical marijuana, I thought it was a joke … just some clever excuse used to try to get to adult-use marijuana, but I was wrong,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, co-chair of the legislative committee that spent months crafting the bill. “My fiancĂ©e is a medical cannabis patient. … She suffered with intractable pain for much of her life. I have personally seen how access to this medicine has helped her.”

SHARP CRITICISM FROM GOVERNOR

This legislative reform has been more than two years in the making, delayed while lawmakers waited to see what would happen to the recreational marijuana bill. After waiting for 18 months, the committee decided it had to push through an omnibus bill that would address a range of problems with the program, loosening some overly restrictive rules that stunted the growth of the industry and adding new ones to close legal loopholes that some participants were abusing.

The committee wrote the bill expecting a veto, but believes the Legislature’s support for the program runs deep enough to override it, Brakey said.

There was some pushback on the Senate floor Wednesday, with Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, echoing some of LePage’s concerns about the medical program. He argued that Maine needs to adopt identical regulatory structures for its adult-use and medical marijuana programs, especially when it comes to areas such as labeling, packaging and state-reported inventory tracking. He said the bill should levy an excise tax on medical marijuana that can now be sold between caregivers.

LePage has had sharp criticism for the medical pot program over the last year, claiming that it lacks adequate supervision and resources to crack down on abuse. He thinks patients use the program to get recreational marijuana, and in his veto letter of the bill that would have launched the adult-use market last year, he said he believed many people would keep exploiting the medical program unless Maine taxed both at the same rate.

Currently, medical marijuana is taxed at 5.5 percent, and edible medical marijuana at 8 percent. The latest version of the adult-use bill pending before LePage now has a combination of sales and excise taxes that would levy a 20 percent collective tax on recreational marijuana, either on wholesale sales between a cultivator and retail shop or at the cash register of the retail store. LePage believes that tax differential makes the medical program ripe for abuse.

SOME RESTRICTIONS ELIMINATED

But advocates argue that the benefits of the bill outweigh any problems that can be cleaned up with additional legislation during the next session.

The bill would increase patient access to medical marijuana by allowing medical providers to certify an adult patient for any medical reason, eliminating an existing list of qualifying conditions that allowed certification only for people suffering from illnesses like cancer, Crohn’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. It would allow parents to give marijuana to children with epilepsy, cancer or intellectual or developmental disabilities after just one doctor recommendation. Now they must get two.

The bill also would give registered caregivers the ability to use their 30-plant operation to serve as many patients as their harvest allows. Under current law, a caregiver is limited to five qualified patients at any one time. Some of the more enterprising caregivers have skirted that limitation, however, using short-term patient designations, or rotating five-patient slots, to treat hundreds of patients a year. The bill would do away with the need for so-called patient cycling.

The bill also would allow caregivers to hire more workers, whereas they are now limited to just one. They also would be able to sell out of storefronts without the threat of legal action. The current law does not address storefront operations, but over time, as patient demand for medical marijuana grew, some of the more daring caregivers in Maine have opened shops to serve their short-term designation patients, functioning as registered but unlicensed mini-dispensaries.

EXTRA FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITIES

Under the new bill, Maine will license six new dispensaries, bringing the total to 14. The dispensaries will be able to shed their nonprofit status to better compete in the marketplace.

But with those extra freedoms would come extra responsibilities. The bill requires caregivers to submit to unannounced inspections of their grows, lets towns regulate where caregivers can operate cultivation facilities, and requires registered caregivers and dispensaries to install a seed-to-sale tracking system. It also requires caregivers who operate storefronts to install the same security measures as those used by dispensaries.

Brakey described these new rules as needed to restore dignity to a program that some had found ways to exploit, and in some cases, flout.

About 42,000 Mainers have a doctor’s authorization to use medical marijuana. That number has fallen almost 18 percent since Maine legalized recreational marijuana, even though the state has yet to license any adult-use grows or retail shops. Mainers spent about $24.5 million in the state’s eight licensed dispensaries last year. Caregiver sales to patients are probably enough to double the size of the market, according to leaders of the state’s 3,000-caregiver network.

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

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This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on April 19 to reflect the bill’s uncertain status as lawmakers argued early into the morning over whether to extend the session.