Officials prepare for pot program

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff
Posted May 14, 2010, at 11:07 p.m.

It’s not a pipe dream — growing, selling, buying and using prescribed marijuana for specified medical conditions will become legal in Maine on July 1.

Approved by two-thirds of voters in last November’s referendum, the new law establishes a statewide system of storefront dispensaries to grow and sell marijuana and a registration process to identify qualified patients and caregivers.

But despite a flurry of emergency rulemaking aimed at tightening up perceived loopholes in the language of the voter-endorsed law, many questions remain about the rollout of Maine’s medical marijuana program. To help answer those questions and build support for the initiative, state and national advocates will host the Maine Medical Cannabis Conference on Saturday, June 5, at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Talk show host and medical marijuana promoter Montel Williams, who suffers with multiple sclerosis, will be the keynote speaker at the event. Other national presenters include Paul Armentano of the Washington, D.C.-based organization NORML, which promotes the reform of marijuana laws, and Debbie Goldsberry, director of the Berkeley Patients Group in California. Speakers from Maine include Deputy Commissioner Kathy Bubar of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services; Gordon Smith of the Maine Medical Association; and professor Wendy Chapkis of the University of Southern Maine Sociology Department.

“This conference is just a follow-up to make sure everyone is moving along rapidly and smoothly,” said Jonathan Leavitt of Sumner, director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative and a speaker in the conference lineup. Leavitt, who coordinated the referendum campaign last fall, said Friday that rules crafted after the referendum impose needless restrictions and will make it harder for Maine people to get the marijuana they need to treat symptoms related to conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and Crohn’s disease.

For example, he said, the state’s determination to limit to eight the number of dispensaries — storefront operations that also are authorized to grow marijuana for a designated number of registered patients — means many Mainers will have to travel long distances to purchase the marijuana they need. Only one nonprofit dispensary will be licensed in each of Maine’s eight public health districts, but Leavitt said he has spoken with “at least 50 or 60 people or groups” interested in applying, despite a $15,000 application fee.

Leavitt said patients and their caregivers also need to understand the new law so they can obtain legal identification and feel confident about the process of purchasing and using marijuana.

Leavitt said he has heard from dozens of physicians who are eager to understand the law and how it can help them provide better care to their patients.

In addition, he said, municipal officials want to know the legal ins and outs of having a dispensary located in their towns.

He characterized a recent spate of dispensary moratoriums — Bangor and Brewer both have enacted one, along with other communities — as the product of “overactive municipal bodies caught up in the excitement of all this.” He said the dispensaries will prove valuable additions to the communities where they are established.

Cathy Cobb, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services at Maine DHHS, said Friday that applications from individual patients are beginning to trickle in to her office. Review and processing for identification cards will begin July 1, she said.

She noted that existing Maine laws that permit qualified patients to possess small amounts of marijuana will stay in effect until Jan. 1, 2011. Patients who wish to register for the new program must submit more substantial documentation than has previously been required, she noted.

Cobb said she has yet to receive any applications for dispensary licensure but that she expects many before the June 25 deadline. Selection of approved applicants will be completed by July 9. Applicants not selected will have all but $1,000 of the $15,000 application fee returned — a strategy that both helps pay for the self-funded program and helps ensure the financial viability of selected applicants, she said.

Cobb said she has fielded calls from a number of municipalities concerned about the possible siting of dispensaries. She said the state is encouraging communities to enact ordinances that permit the safest environments for dispensaries, their employees and their clinics.

“We don’t want them disguised, tucked away or invisible,” Cobb said. “The whole intent is to require a really safe environment where this substance is controlled, people know what they’re buying and there is a level of legitimacy for those who need it.”

Emergency rules enacted by the department in order to guide the initial rollout of the program will be reviewed this summer, she said, including a public hearing sometime in June.

Information and resources about Maine’s new medical marijuana law, including downloadable applications for patients and dispensaries, are available at the DHHS website.

Additional information, including information about the upcoming conference in Portland, is available on the website of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative.

On the Web: www.mainemedicalcannabisconference.com, www.mainecommonsense.org/index.php

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/05/14/news/officials-prepare-for-pot-program/ printed on December 20, 2014