29 nonprofits applying to distribute medical marijuana

Posted June 25, 2010, at 9:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly 30 organizations hoping to be among the first wave of medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine filed applications with state regulators by Friday’s deadline.

On July 9, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will award up to eight permits to nonprofit organizations that have applied to open facilities where qualified patients or their caregivers can purchase medical marijuana.

Voters expanded Maine’s 10-year-old medical marijuana law and approved the creation of dispensaries in a November 2009 referendum.

Twenty-nine applicants will compete for the permits with one dispensary being selected in each of Maine’s eight public health districts. The deadline to submit a completed application and pay the $15,000 fee was 2 p.m. Friday.

“This is right around what I had thought; I expected 25 to 30 applications,” said Cathy Cobb, director of DHHS’ Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services.

It was not possible to determine Friday afternoon precisely where applicants hoped to locate their dispensaries. A list distributed Friday by DHHS provides mailing addresses for the applicants as well as names of CEOs of the nonprofits, but those addresses do not necessarily coincide with the proposed location.

The DHHS data provided a glimpse of where interest in setting up a dispensary was strongest and weakest in Maine, however.

As anticipated, the more heavily populated regions of southern Maine drew the most interest with the two districts that encompass York and Cumberland counties attracting a dozen applicants. DHHS also received six applications for the western Maine public health district that includes the Lewiston-Auburn area.

The district that includes Bangor and the rest of Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, meanwhile, drew only two applicants: one from an organization called Penquis Holistic Health Services in Veazie and another by Northeast Patients Group in Hermon.

Northeast Patients Group, which is affiliated with a well-established medical marijuana dispensary in Berkeley, Calif., submitted a total of five applications for facilities in Maine.

There was only one dispensary application for Aroostook County from a group calling itself Safe Alternatives of Fort Kent, while the health district that includes most of midcoast Maine received three applications.

The district encompassing Hancock and Washington counties received three applications, although one of them has already been eliminated from contention because it did not include the required $15,000 fee.

Cobb and three other members of a special panel will spend the next two weeks reviewing the applications based on more than a dozen criteria. Those criteria include security and quality-control plans, the strength of the organization’s long-term business plan, location convenience and previous experience running a nonprofit.

The permit will go to the applicant in each district with the highest score.

“It will be interesting to see what people proposed,” said Cobb, who had yet to begin reviewing the files. “This is new for all of us.”

DHHS spokesman John Martins stressed that permits will be awarded only to applicants who meet the minimum requirements, however. If necessary, the department could re-open the application period if none of the applicants for a specific district is viable.

“We will go right back to the drawing board if we have to,” Martins said.

In addition to navigating the DHHS application process, aspiring dispensary operators also must contend with uncertainty over where, exactly, they will be able to locate their facilities. Maine statutes do not allow municipalities to prohibit dispensaries outright but do allow local officials to enact ordinances regulating where they can set up shop.

Officials in numerous towns and cities — including Bangor, Brewer, Ellsworth and Hampden — have enacted temporary moratoriums on dispensaries while they draft local ordinances.

“It just gave us time to put those [regulations] in place,” said Richard Stone, chairman of the Bangor City Council, which recently approved a 180-day moratorium. “You’ve only got one shot, and it’s a lot easier to do it right the first time.”

Oftentimes, towns and cities will look to the Maine Municipal Association for guidance in developing local ordinances for statewide issues. While locating medical marijuana dispensaries is one of the biggest topics facing MMA members, spokesman Eric Conrad said the association opted against attempting to develop a model ordinance.

“There are so many variables municipality to municipality on the issue that we didn’t know how we would come up with one ordinance that would apply to all of them,” Conrad said.

State law already prohibits dispensaries from locating within 500 feet of a school. Municipalities could expand that prohibition zone or impose additional restrictions, such as tougher security standards than required under the state’s rules.

In Augusta, officials are treating dispensaries like any other medical facility by restricting them to the city’s medical zone. That means any dispensary will be located in the same area as the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care and the anticipated site of MaineGeneral Medical Center’s new regional hospital.

Augusta city planner Matt Nazar said it made sense to place medical marijuana dispensaries near other facilities that some patients will likely use.

“Effectively, we were hoping to send a clear message to the public that this [drug] is for medical use,” Nazar said.

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