Pot Protocol in Perspective

Posted Dec. 14, 2009, at 6:31 p.m.

State and local officials are right to be cautious in writing rules for the marijuana dispensaries that were created by voters last month. But they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are already clinics that dispense methadone for those dealing with heroin addiction. There are tight controls on the sale of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, which can be used to make methamphetamine. And, other states already have designed systems to distribute marijuana for medical purposes.

Examining these systems to learn what works and what doesn’t will save Maine a lot of costly missteps.

On Nov. 3, Maine voters, in a 59 to 41 percent vote, agreed to expand the state’s medical marijuana law and to develop a way to distribute the drug. Days later, a task force was created by the governor to develop a system to do this.

The first charge in the executive order creating the task force is to look at what other states are doing. This is a good place to start. Such a review may also help address concerns about balancing patient confidentiality with public safety such as those that were raised at last week’s task force meeting.

Thirteen states have laws allowing medical marijuana. Colorado has more than 60 dispensaries and recently began taxing medical marijuana sales, which is expected to add $15 million to the state’s coffers annually. There have been thefts from dispensaries, prompting others to limit their hours and take other steps to improve security. There are also concerns that the average age of buyers at the Colorado dispensaries is rapidly declining, which could indicate a rise of illicit use.

As for confidentiality, there are lots of existing models here, too. Other states maintain registries of people who are permitted to buy medical marijuana, usually accessible only to the dispensaries and law enforcement. The state’s methadone clinics could also serve as a model, as client names are protected at these facilities.

Rather than bumbling around for answers, the task force would do better to review what others have done and learn from their successes and failures.

At the municipal level, some communities already are moving to ban dispensaries. This is premature. The usual claims have been made that the facilities will increase crime and bring an undesirable element to a community.

Unlike other drugs that can be used illicitly, medical marijuana can be used to ease the symptoms of ailments that afflict a wide spectrum of the population. Do communities need to keep their residents safe from women with breast cancer or grandparents with glaucoma?

Rather, considering zoning changes to ensure dispensaries don’t end up too close to schools or parks, as Bangor is doing, may make sense.

A decade ago, Mainers resoundingly said marijuana should be available for medical purposes. In November’s election, voters made it clear they expect the state to find a way to make the drug more readily available. The task force and lawmakers have an obligation to do that in a way that balances public safety while fulfilling the intent of the new law.

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