In compromise, panel limits pot dispensaries

Posted March 19, 2010, at 2:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — More than four months after voters expanded Maine’s medical marijuana laws, a bill to implement the changes is receiving mixed reviews from groups and individuals on both sides of the issue.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted 9-0 on Thursday to endorse a measure creating a new, regulated system for approved patients to acquire the drug. But law enforcement and state officials wanted changes to ensure the new system does not create problems for towns and police.

In a key compromise, the committee voted to allow no more than eight nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries in the state — or one dispensary in each of the state’s eight public health districts — during the first year.

Faith Benedetti, a caregiver who served as an advocate for medical marijuana users on a task force established after the November vote, said she is worried whether having just eight dispensaries will provide enough coverage for patients.

Benedetti said she is concerned some patients, such as those living in rural areas, may be forced to drive long distances while ill to pick up their medication.

Benedetti said she also has other concerns about the bill. But overall, she was pleased with the committee’s unanimous vote and that the legislation — while far from perfect in her eyes — is finally moving forward.

“Patients who need this medication don’t want to use the black market one day longer than they have to,” Benedetti said.

The committee also voted to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to charge up to $15,000 annually for each licensed dispensary, which will grow and distribute medical marijuana to registered patients or designated caregivers. Patients also can grow their own pot in limited quantities but cannot both grow and purchase the drug.

The high annual cost of the dispensary license was intended to serve two purposes, according to the committee.

First, revenues from the licenses will pay much of DHHS’ administration costs for overseeing the new system. But lawmakers also wanted to set the financial bar high enough to discourage the proliferation of fly-by-night dispensaries, especially if the cap is lifted after the first year.

Attorney General Janet Mills, who had expressed serious legal concerns about numerous aspects of the ballot measure passed by voters last November, applauded the initial limits on the number of dispensaries.

“I think that’s a smart idea: Take it one step at a time,” Mills said.

Nothing in the bill, LD 1811, prohibits towns and cities from controlling where dispensaries may locate within their borders.

Civil liberties groups are criticizing the committee’s decision to require that all medical marijuana users register with DHHS, however.

Under the state’s current medical marijuana law, which has been on the books since 1999, patients caught with pot only need to provide law enforcement with a copy of the physician’s recommendation that they use the drug.

The new system, as proposed in the current version of LD 1811, would require patients to register with DHHS and be issued an ID card that can be displayed to law enforcement. That information would remain confidential, except in the case of a court order or as part of a criminal investigation.

Shenna Bellows with the Maine Civil Liberties Union argued that the ballot measure envisioned a voluntary registration system, not mandatory ID cards for all patients. Bellows said some patients would prefer to keep their decision to use medical marijuana between themselves and their doctors.

“Some patients are concerned that storing the information in a database kept by the state could make them more vulnerable to federal prosecution,” Bellows said. Others also are concerned that the information could be shared with other entities without their authorization, she said.

The MCLU was pleased, on the other hand, that the committee prohibited inspections of individual patients who grow their own medical marijuana or registered caregivers who grow for three or fewer patients. Dispensaries and caregivers with more than three patients still would be subject to DHHS inspections.

The government should be allowed to inspect a registered patient’s home only if they are suspected of breaking the law, Bellows said.

“Patients and their caregivers shouldn’t be subject to warrantless searches of their homes, period,” she said.

Committee co-chair Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said she believes many people will want the legal protection and peace of mind provided by the ID card. Perry also said the registration system also would help the state get a handle on the demand for medical marijuana.

“Right now, we have no idea what the need is,” Perry said.

Some supporters of the ballot measure have accused state officials of attempting to water down an initiative that passed with roughly 59 percent support from voters.

But Attorney General Mills countered that the ballot question — like many citizen-initiated bills — contained significant flaws that few people were aware of because most supporters voted yes without reading the lengthy bill.

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, described the version endorsed by the committee Thursday as a reasonable approach.

“I think it’s workable,” Farmer said. “The governor’s focus all along has been to implement the law in a way that respects the will of the voters but that also protects public safety.”

The bill now heads to the full Legislature for consideration.

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