8 districts to handle medical marijuana

Posted April 07, 2010, at 9:14 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that authorizes up to eight medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine and creates a state-run registry system for patients and caregivers who legally possess the drug.

The bill, LD 1811, implements the ballot initiative approved by nearly 60 percent of voters last November expanding Maine’s medical marijuana law. The bill now goes to Gov. John Baldacci, who is expected to sign the measure into law.

The bill establishes a new, regulated system for approved patients to acquire the drug by allowing one nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary in each of the state’s eight public health districts during the first year. Until the dispensaries are established, Maine’s existing law allows approved patients to grow up to six marijuana plants at a time for their own use or to designate a “caregiver” to grow the plants for them.

The Department of Health and Human Services will adopt rules for the dispensary application and selection process, including setting license fees of up to $15,000 a year. License fees and other fees will allow DHHS to cover the oversight costs of the new system. After the first year under the new law, DHHS will re-evaluate the program to determine whether more dispensaries are needed.

The legislation does not, however, prohibit local governments from adopting their own regulations controlling where dispensaries can set up shop within town boundaries. Several towns throughout Maine already have adopted ordinances or moratoriums on dispensaries in anticipation of the new law.

Dan Walker, an attorney who represented the sponsors of last November’s medical marijuana ballot question, said Wednesday evening that numerous issues still will be have to be worked out during the rule-making process. But Walker was optimistic it will be a “healthy process.”

“From where we were to where we are now, this is a huge step,” Walker said.

Under the legislation, DHHS also will create a patient and caregiver registry system with ID cards that can be presented to law enforcement or others as proof that they are using medical marijuana upon the recommendation of their physician.

That mandatory registration system has been criticized by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, however, as a possible violation of doctor-patient privacy. Under law, patients stopped by law enforcement for pot possession can avoid charges by producing a letter from their physician attesting to their patient’s use of the drug.

“Given that medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, it is understandable that some Maine patients may not want to register in the state’s database,” Zachary Heiden, legal director of the MCLU, said in a statement. “The Legislature has taken a step backward by forcing patients to expose their doctor’s recommendation and treatment plan.”

Both the House and Senate voted Monday to pass the bill, but final enactment of the legislation was delayed several days while lawmakers worked out a way to pay for the new DHHS system before the department begins collecting licensing fees.

During Monday’s debate, some lawmakers said they believed the bill could open the door to potential problems for communities where dispensaries are located as well as law enforcement agencies.

Rep. Sarah Lewin, R-Eliot, said she does not believe many voters understood the scope of the changes proposed by the ballot initiative, which she regards as a step toward legalizing marijuana. While she voted in support of the bill in committee, Lewin said she could not support a measure she believes contains too many gaping holes.

“Frankly, under the guise of medical marijuana, I find it abhorrent that this thing was passed,” Lewin said.

Others cautioned their colleagues against tinkering too much with a measure that received strong support at the polls and that expands a law, the Maine Medical Marijuana Act, that has been on the books for more than a decade.

“We are talking about the Maine Medical Marijuana Act, not about legalizing marijuana,” said Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

Baldacci spokesman David Farmer said Wednesday evening that the governor is expected to sign the bill.

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