Marijuana task force nearly ready

Posted Dec. 15, 2009, at 7:29 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — While the voters approved the citizen initiated bill to expand access to marijuana for medical purposes last month, a task force established by Gov. John Baldacci is struggling to craft a measure that will implement the will of the voters.

“We are almost there,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey, the panel’s chairwoman, said Tuesday. “We will need another meeting in the new year to finalize some language, but we made a lot of progress this afternoon.”

Nearly 60 percent of Mainers voted for legislation that established seven guidelines to expand the list of qualifying ailments for use of marijuana, and to establish a method to regulate a system of dispensaries where patients can buy the drug.

The panel has struggled through three meetings to craft ways to meet the intent of the voters while protecting patients and the public. Just what the voters intended is far from clear.

“I voted for this and I didn’t read everything in the bill, and I don’t think most voters did either,” said Ken Altshuler, a lawyer representing the public on the panel. “I don’t think most had a clue.”

He said the task force is charged with making the law work, while balancing the interests of the public and the patients who want to use marijuana because of their medical conditions. But, some provisions in the original bill have been rejected by most of the panel.

For example, there is language in the original bill that appears to grant what Attorney General Janet Mills called “extraordinary rights” if a person had a card under the law allowing them to use pot for medicinal uses anywhere at anytime. She said that would be a “nightmare” and would lead to unnecessary litigation.

“There was a fair amount of consensus, except for the sponsors, to remove that language,” Harvey said.

There appeared to be broad agreement on the panel to recommend dispensaries be subject to the same inspection standards as other licensed facilities in the state, but there was disagreement on whether the same inspection standards should apply to an individual growing their own marijuana in their home.

Altshuler objected to such a broad inspection standard for individuals.

“That just goes too far for me,” he said.

But there was broad agreement on recommendations dealing with confidentiality. The general public would not have access to the names of individuals whose doctors have approved their use of medical marijuana, but law enforcement officers would have access to a confidential list of legitimate card holders.

The panel is recommending that the locations of the dispensaries be public, an important provision for cities and towns that may wish to control where such nonprofit dispensaries can locate.

The task force agreed to recommend that only Maine licensed physicians be allowed to prescribe under the law, but rejected a concern raised by doctors.

“We don’t want any pot docs in Maine,” said Gordon Smith, vice president of the Maine Medical Association. “We would like to say that no doctor would take advantage of the law and take on a lot of patients just for the purpose of this law, but we can’t.”

He suggested the law set a limit on how many patients a doctor could prescribe for under the new law, but that was rejected as unneeded by the panel. Harvey said DHHS will keep “running statistics” and could recommend a limit if there appeared to be a problem.

The bill, as passed by the people, does not provide for a way to revoke a certificate from a patient if they no longer need the marijuana or lied to the doctor to get approval. The panel agreed that the law needs to allow for such a process.

There are several unresolved issues, such as how many marijuana plants an individual should be allowed to grow for their own use. As passed, the measure says six plants, but Dan Walker, an attorney representing the group that put the issue on the ballot, suggested that be changed to six mature and six immature plants to assure a constant supply.

Another area to be decided is who actually will handle the issuance of the photo ID card under the measure. DHHS does not issue photo ID cards, so the panel is exploring options that include the State Police and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles handling that chore.

“Whatever we finally recommend will go through the legislative process,” Harvey said. “And a lot of what we do recommend will be debated and discussed and resolved by the Legislature.”

She said over the holiday period her department will work on drafting the language to implement what the panel has so far recommended and options to be considered for the remaining issues.

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