The voters spoke clearly in passing Question 5 on the Nov. 3 ballot. Now state government must act to close the circle so that patients suffering through chemotherapy and radiation, and those with epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, chronic pain and other conditions can have access to marijuana prescribed by their doctors.
Gov. John Baldacci will create a group to study the regulatory issues raised by the passage of Question 5 — which expands the 1999 vote in Maine that legalized growing marijuana for medical treatment. That study group must have a limited agenda and should act within a reasonable time to fix whatever problems the law may hold. Rejecting the intent of both the 1999 and Nov. 3 votes must not be within the group’s power, and once it issues its recommendations, state government must act quickly to implement them.
The same voters who rejected same-sex marriage by 53 percent to 47 percent, presumably supporting a traditional view of marriage, approved the expansion of the state’s medical marijuana law by 59 percent to 41 percent. That result suggests public sentiment about the substance has swung away from the hysterical view perpetuated by films like “Reefer Madness.”
That said, marijuana can be abused as easily as alcohol, prescription drugs and illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin. State regulators are justified in their concerns about the potential for marijuana dispensaries, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, “leaking” the substance to those without prescriptions. The 1999 law allowed patients or their designees to grow the plant; the Nov. 3 vote creates the dispensaries, which are akin to pharmacies.
DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey has said rules must be drafted, staff must be trained and budgets must be developed before the dispensaries can open. She expects that to be completed by spring.
“What we don’t want is an unintended outcome — a negative outcome,” the commissioner told the Portland Press Herald. “We don’t want to inadvertently have access — in this case, to marijuana — be open in such a way that we don’t honor the public safety we have an obligation to be protecting while meeting the intent of this referendum.”
Those concerns are legitimate, but the department must remain focused on the intent of the voters.