State uneasy about new pot law, patient confidentiality

Posted Dec. 08, 2009, at 10:46 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A task force on medical marijuana grappled with issues of patient confidentiality, law enforcement and quality control Tuesday in the wake of Mainers’ vote granting sick people easier access to the drug.

Under seven guidelines passed by nearly 60 percent of voters in November, Maine will expand the list of qualifying ailments for use of marijuana as well as regulate a system of dispensaries where patients can buy the drug.

But as Tuesday’s meeting made clear, some panel members remain uneasy about how, exactly, to help those with legitimate medical conditions get access to the drug without also making it easier for recreational users to buy.

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“There is the potential for abuse, and I think we have to be cognizant of that,” said Attorney General Janet Mills. “There is a different kind of balancing act that is going on in this arena than with other prescription drugs.”

Panel members appeared to agree Tuesday that the general public should not have access to the names of individuals whose doctors have approved their use of medical marijuana. Such people would be issued state identification cards, and law enforcement officers would have access to a confidential “silent registry” of legitimate users.

There also seemed to be wide agreement on the panel that the locations of the dispensaries should not be confidential, an important distinction for municipalities hoping to control where such businesses can locate.

However, task force members disagreed on how much information even law enforcement should receive from dispensaries and caregivers. For instance, should police have access to the names of the individuals who buy pot from the dispensaries, which are permitted to have up to five patient “clients” and grow up to six pot plants for each patient.

“You have to err on the side of protecting the patient, every time,” said Ken Altshuler, a lawyer representing the public on the panel.

Others disagreed, arguing that police must be able to confirm the legitimacy of each client to ensure the dispensary is not growing a few extra pot plants for the illegal market.

“I fear a huge potential for abuse if law enforcement doesn’t have access to this [information],” state Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan told her fellow panel members.

The same question was raised about approved “caregivers,” who can legally buy and deliver the drug to patients. Without access to a caregiver’s client’s information, panelists asked, how would an officer be able to confirm the claims of someone stopped with several ounces of pot in a car?

Panel members representing medical marijuana patients, physicians and the Department of Health and Human Services have also expressed concerns about how the state can ensure the quality of marijuana grown and distributed by dispensaries.

Ned Porter, a deputy commissioner with the Maine Department of Agriculture, pointed out that the state has quality control programs for blueberries, potatoes, milk and other commodities. But implementing anything similar for marijuana — an illegal drug — would be a challenge, he said.

Porter said he even called the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ask about an organic certification program. Products that meet the USDA guidelines carry a USDA “certified organic” seal.

“I just wanted to find out what they thought of their brand being used. I haven’t heard back from them yet,” Porter said with a chuckle.

Other discussion Tuesday focused on whether Maine should offer reciprocity to other states, such as California or Colorado, that license medical marijuana dispensaries.

The panel will meet again next week to continue working on the recommended rules, which will be presented to the Legislature early next year.

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