A bill that supporters believe could help save Maine’s medical marijuana program from a set of controversial proposed rule changes is one step closer to becoming law after receiving initial approval from both the state House of Representatives and Senate this week. 

Co-sponsored by Rep. Lynne Williams, D-Bar Harbor, and Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, L.D. 1242 would halt a set of proposed rule changes to the medical program and require the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy to consult caregivers, patients, physicians and medical professionals with experience in the industry before making major changes. 

The Maine House of Representatives approved the bill 117-25 late Wednesday, and the Senate followed suit Thursday afternoon. 

The bill will go back to the House for enactment and then to the Senate for the same, but neither had happened by deadline Thursday.

Under the bill, the Office of Marijuana Policy would be required to develop a process for hiring consultants to advise on any proposed rule or other changes to the program regulating the state’s No. 1 cash crop. 

In January, the regulatory office released a preliminary draft of rule changes to the medical program that officials said were “meant to align the program with state law.”

Among other things, the proposed rules would require all registered medical cannabis providers, dispensaries and manufacturing facilities to implement a “seed-to-sale” or “track-and-trace” system, currently used in the adult-use program.

That would require providers to track all marijuana plants and harvested marijuana daily from “immature plant” to point of sale or disposal. That would create a record in case of contamination or illness, and also help keep illicit product out of the legal market, and vice versa. 

The proposed rules also would require strict security measures, including 24-hour camera surveillance and an alarm system. Surveillance data would have to be stored for 30 days.

For months, medical marijuana providers, known in the industry as caregivers, have been sounding the alarm, worried that the requirements, security systems, alarms, track-and-trace and other changes would be too expensive for them to survive.

According to L.D. 1242, the proposed rules go beyond the permitted technical changes and are instead “major changes that warrant legislative involvement and oversight.” 

If passed, the bill would change the designation for such changes to major substantive, effective July 1, requiring legislative input and a more robust public process for any future rule changes.

Mark Barnett, a caregiver and a founder of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, on Thursday called the vote “a pretty amazing achievement for the power of the people.”

“The most important thing,” he said, is that the bill would “protect all of our patients from losing access to affordable, therapeutic medicine and protects the small businesses that were going to face some really terrible financial consequences.”

The bill and its anticipated passage brings to an end to seven or eight months of work for Barnett and other supporters, who started working late last year “because we knew the (proposed) rules were coming and were going to be hostile and aggressive.”

However, he said, he hopes caregivers and the office of marijuana policy see it as a starting point, rather than a conclusion.

“(The bill) says this is a very important and currently wayward process, so here’s a better way to do that. Have the Legislature involved and bring to the industry, the actual industry and not just the few large corporate players … an opportunity to actually have a constructive conversation about how this (industry) should be regulated.”

The bill also would require that before implementing a statewide electronic portal for caregiver businesses, the department use existing resources to study the economic effects that any new rules or changes may have and how they may impact patient access to medical marijuana. 

If the bill passes, the Department of Administrative and Financial Services would also be required to submit a report on its progress to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee by Jan. 15, 2022. 

On Wednesday, the Senate approved a similar bill, L.D. 1319, which would halt any new rules governing the medical marijuana program until Dec. 31, 2023, and would require the Office of Marijuana Policy to use existing resources to study both the economic impact and potential effects on patient access to medical marijuana before making any changes.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Kennebec, would also reinstate a cap on the number of medical cannabis dispensaries allowed in Maine. Dispensaries would be limited to 14 statewide and any new registrant (there are already eight licensed dispensaries) would have to have been a Maine resident for at least four years. The requirement would be in effect until 2025. 

The state’s medical marijuana program, which has more than 3,000 registered caregivers and eight dispensaries, garnered roughly $266 million in sales last year, making cannabis Maine’s most valuable crop.

As amended, the bill also would remove the annual third-party audit, allow caregivers to sell plants to qualifying patients and prohibit any statewide portal from tracking the names or birthdates of patients. 

The amended version would also preclude the Office of Marijuana Policy from requiring video surveillance or security systems for home-based caregivers and create an exemption for “small-scale caregivers” from the record-keeping requirements. 

L.D. 1319 was expected to go to the House on Thursday night.


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