Medical pot issue likely headed to voters

Posted April 13, 2009, at 9:23 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s current law that allows use of marijuana for medical purposes isn’t working, said leaders of a petition effort to allow state-licensed facilities to sell the drug.

“The way it is now is patients have to make their own determination how they are going to access their medicine,” said Jonathan Leavitt of Maine Citizens for Patient Rights, the group that organized the petition drive. “There is essentially no legal way to buy it.”

The proposed law would direct the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to issue identification cards to qualifying patients. It would also allow nonprofit dispensaries licensed by the agency to provide marijuana to those patients.

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Mainers in 1999 overwhelmingly approved the existing law to allow residents to possess marijuana for medical use with a doctor’s recommendation. Patients are allowed to keep up to 2½ ounces of marijuana and up to six marijuana plants.

“The reality is that patients are not equipped to do that,” Leavitt told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “And landlords and people that own property are hesitant because of the law enforcement issues to allow that. So essentially, people access it through the black market.”

If lawmakers don’t enact the bill, the proposal automatically goes to a statewide vote because supporters collected more than the 55,087 signatures needed to put it on the November ballot. All told, the proposal’s supporters collected 80,000 signatures, Leavitt said.

At Monday’s hearing, the measure was opposed by several in the law enforcement and medical fields.

“This legislation would allow storefront marijuana businesses to possess, cultivate and sell marijuana for medical purposes under the appearance it is regulated similar to the controlled substances that are dispensed at a pharmacy,” said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

McKinney said storefront shops in California have led to increased crime in the neighborhoods and an increase in other illegal drug trafficking. He said complicating the issue is that federal law considers the drug illegal, and it would take a federal court decision or an act of Congress to change that.

But Leavitt said the idea is more politically palatable now, thanks to federal prosecutors’ new reluctance to override state marijuana laws.

He cited U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a change from the Bush administration’s policy, which outlawed cultivating, using and selling marijuana for medical purposes despite state laws permitting it.

“I think we addressed some of the concerns, primarily whether the federal government was going to continue to interfere,” Leavitt said after the hearing.

Charles Wynott of Westbrook told lawmakers that, as a patient of HIV-AIDS, medical marijuana has increased his ability to function on a daily basis.

“It’s important for you to understand how important this is to a lot of people who are not here today,” he said.

But some medical professionals doubted the effectiveness of the drug.

Several opponents said the legislation specifically states certain medical conditions for which marijuana can be used, but medical studies show use of the drug could hurt the individual, not help them. For example, the proposed law lists hepatitis C as a qualifying condition, but studies show the use of the drug may worsen the health of a person with that condition.

Dr. Mark Publicker, medical director of the Mercy Hospital Recovery Center, said marijuana is not “a benign herb” and poses significant medical risks for users.

“There is a great deal of literature to demonstrate that it carries with it a tremendous psychiatric risk,” he said. “There are number of studies that demonstrate a six- to sevenfold increase in the risk of schizophrenia in 17- and 18-year-olds smoking cannabis on a daily basis.”

Committee members said it’s likely the measure will go to the Legislature with a recommendation it go to the voters to decide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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