AUGUSTA, Maine — A task force charged with implementing changes to Maine’s medical marijuana law fine-tuned its recommendations to the governor and Legislature on Friday, reaching consensus on several key issues but leaving a handful unanswered.
Last November, nearly 60 percent of Maine voters approved a referendum expanding the list of medical conditions eligible for treatment with marijuana. Voters also supported the creation of nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries where registered patients could legally acquire the drug.
Since early December, a task force appointed by Gov. John Baldacci has struggled to recommend statutory changes to regulate the dispensaries in a way that helps patients without compromising public safety or creating legal headaches for law enforcement.
After five meetings, the group has developed a draft plan that addresses many of the major regulatory issues, including the general logistics of issuing of identification cards to registered users and how and when state officials could inspect dispensaries.
But members acknowledged that some potentially thorny issues — such as the precise language on local zoning aimed at controlling dispensary locations — would be worked out by lawmakers later this winter through a bill based on the task force’s work.
“I think this is one hurdle that we have cleared,” said Faith Benedetti, one of several members representing patients’ interests on the group. “I’m really optimistic and hopeful that now the Legislature will do the right thing for patients.”
“I think we did a lot of good work, and I hope we offered a lot of good guidance to the state on this issue,” said Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under the ballot initiative approved by voters, dispensaries would have to register with the state and pay a $5,000 fee. Convicted felons would be prohibited from operating or working at a dispensary under the proposal.
The state would keep track of how many patients have designated that dispensary as their source for marijuana. Dispensaries could possess up to six live marijuana plants for each registered patient but could give out no more than 2.5 ounces of pot to each patient every 15 days.
Attorney General Janet Mills indicated Friday that she still has legal concerns about aspects of the proposed changes. But Mills said the task force had made significant progress.
“There is some more work that we will have to do because I don’t think the initiative was well-drafted,” Mills said.
One issue that has haunted the task force’s work is uncertainty over how many dispensaries could set up shop in Maine under the new rules. In fact, the state does not even have figures of how many patients are eligible to use medical marijuana under the existing law that has been on the books for roughly a decade.
“We still don’t know whether there are going to be 100 people who are going to be interested in dispensaries or 500 people or 5,000,” said John McElwee, retired District Court judge who represented the public on the panel.
Municipal officials throughout Maine are anxiously waiting for the rules on dispensaries to be final before deciding whether to limit or attempt to ban the nonprofit operations in town. Earlier this week, Ellsworth officials unanimously approved a six-month moratorium on dispensaries.
Also Friday, the majority of group members supported the creation of an advisory board that would review whether to add other debilitating conditions to the list of qualifying conditions for treatment with medical marijuana. A minority of the members had wanted the task force itself to recommend the addition of specific conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The task force, comprising representatives of state government as well as the medical community and patients, is expected to submit a final report to Baldacci within the next two weeks. That report will then form the basis of legislation that will be considered by lawmakers.
Public hearings on the bill will be held later this winter.
Task force members Benedetti and attorney Dan Walker, who represented supporters of the ballot initiative, both said they believe the task force helped educate members and dispel myths about medical marijuana users.
“I think everyone on the task force came a long way understanding the needs of patients,” Walker said after Friday’s meeting.