State panel debates access to medical pot

Posted Dec. 01, 2009, at 7:31 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly one month after voters supported expanding Maine’s medical marijuana law, members of a task force began debating how best to help sick patients get easier access to the drug without threatening public safety or creating a bureaucratic nightmare.

The new law, which nearly 60 percent of Maine voters approved, allows qualified individuals to set up medical marijuana dispensaries that would be licensed by the state.

The ballot initiative also directs Maine government to issue identification cards to people who are legally allowed to use the drug and expands the list of ailments for which doctors could recommend medical marijuana.

But members of a task force said Tuesday that aspects of the new law could be problematic for law enforcement as well as the bureaucrats charged with overseeing distribution of a drug that remains illegal under federal law.

“This bill is not drafted in sync with other Maine statutes, and I am concerned about that,” said Attorney General Janet Mills, a member of the panel charged by Gov. John Baldacci with implementing the new law.

Several other panel members acknowledged that that law will need tweaking when the Legislature returns in January, but they cautioned against attempting to reopen debate over the core issue given the strong showing at the polls.

“I think our mandate is clear. The people have spoken,” said John McElwee, a retired District Court judge and former drug court judge. “I think we have to fashion something that gets this to the people that need it.”

Maine voters first approved the use of medical marijuana in 1999. That law allowed individuals who receive a doctor’s recommendation to possess up to 2.5 ounces of the drug and to grow up to six plants.

Critics argued, however, that the original law did not provide users with a legal route for obtaining pot, thereby forcing those unable to grow it themselves to buy it from drug dealers.

The new law calls for the establishment of nonprofit, board-governed dispensaries where qualified patients or their designated caregivers could purchase marijuana. The dispensaries, which have been approved in four other states, also will be licensed to grow marijuana for qualified patients.

But panel members said the law contains glaring holes, especially in the areas of confidentiality and quality control of marijuana grown by the licensed dispensaries.

Commissioner Anne Jordan of the Department of Public Safety said that the locations of dispensaries would be kept secret from police departments under the ballot initiative. Jordan questioned how officers could confirm the claims of someone who insists they are growing or transporting pot for a legal dispensary.

The existing law does not preclude municipalities from passing local ordinances banning dispensaries within certain zones. But because of the confidentiality requirements, local officials would be unable to find out whether any dispensaries are located within town limits.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, said that unlike drugs regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no way for physicians to guarantee the quality of medical marijuana. Smith also warned that many doctors may be unwilling to recommend medical marijuana to patients if the law is perceived as being flawed.

But Dan Walker, an attorney representing the group behind the recent medical marijuana initiative, said none of the issues discussed Tuesday was necessarily new or insurmountable. Walker pointed out that California, Colorado, New Mexico and Rhode Island all have some form of dispensary system.

New Mexico’s law, in particular, could serve as a valuable template for the task force as it works to implement the new system in Maine, he said.

Faith Benedetti, a former program coordinator of Dayspring AIDS Support Services, said she has met many severely ill patients for whom medical marijuana has made all the difference by helping them sleep, eat and ease chronic ailments. Benedetti said she hopes the panel will find a way to shorten the potential 30-day wait in the current bill, which could be a long and painful delay for someone suffering from serious illness.

“There are real people who are waiting for us to make these decisions in a way that is going to be sensible and helpful to them,” she said.

The panel is expected to meet at least two more times before the Legislature convenes next month. Lawmakers will have 45 days to amend the law.

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