State OKs Down East marijuana dispensary

Posted Aug. 31, 2010, at 10:15 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State health officials on Tuesday selected a Portland-based nonprofit to open a medical marijuana dispensary in the small Washington County town of Whitneyville.

Primary Organic Therapy Inc. hopes to operate one of eight tightly regulated facilities in the state where qualified patients or their caregivers can legally purchase marijuana for treatment of various ailments and medical conditions.

Voters approved the establishment of such dispensaries and marijuana-growing operations last November in order to make it easier — and safer — for patients to acquire the drug under Maine’s 10-year-old medical marijuana law. But the state has limited the number of dispensaries statewide to eight in the first year.

On Tuesday, a special review panel within the Department of Health and Human Services named the recipients of the final two dispensary licensees: Primary Organic Therapy and Safe Harbor Maine Inc. of Biddeford, which will operate a dispensary in York County.

Primary Organic Therapy plans to open the dispensary in a former doctor’s office on Main Street in Whitneyville, a town of roughly 250 people located less than five miles from Machias.

According to the organization’s application with the state, Whitneyville was selected because it is centrally located within the public health district that the dispensary will serve.

“We feel this will allow access by the greatest number of communities in the district,” the application states. “For those patients that cannot drive to our facility, we will also offer safe and secure delivery service to ensure they can get access [to their] medication.”

Derek Brock, CEO of Primary Organic Therapy, said he had not spoken with Whitneyville town officials, but that he planned to now that the state has approved the application.

News of the medical marijuana nonprofit’s interest in the Down East community came as a surprise to Patricia Dowling, a member of the Whitneyville Board of Selectmen.

Dowling said the board had not been informed about the application. She declined to comment further on the prospect of a medical marijuana dispensary locating within Whitneyville, adding only: “We’re a very small, very quiet town.”

Approved by a wide margin by voters, last November’s referendum made Maine the latest state to allow regulated dispensaries of a drug that — while legal in Maine for patients with a doctor’s recommendation — remains illegal under federal law.

Obama administration officials have indicated they have no interest in prosecuting medical marijuana users or suppliers as long as they are complying with state laws.

Brock, who described himself as a botanist, said he has witnessed within his own family how medical marijuana can help patients. Brock said he wants Primary Organic Therapy to help educate the public and fight the stigma against the medicinal use of marijuana.

“It’s something that I believe in,” he said Tuesday of Maine’s new dispensary system. “It’s something that states all across the U.S. need to adopt.”

In the months since last November’s vote, state officials and lawmakers have put in place a complex set of regulations meant to prevent abuse of the law and to ensure that the dispensaries and growing operations do not pose a threat to public safety.

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 security standards tougher than those required under the state’s rules.

Numerous towns and cities throughout Maine, including Bangor, have adopted moratoria in order to take the time to write local zoning for dispensaries. Whitneyville has not taken that step.

Three other companies already had been selected to open dispensaries in Maine’s six other health districts. However, DHHS reopened the application process for the two remaining districts after all of the initial applicants failed to demonstrate that they could meet the financial, safety and logistical requirements to operate a dispensary in Maine.

During the second round, seven organizations vied for the chance to run a dispensary in District 7, which covers Hancock and Washington counties.

Primary Organic Therapy received the highest score on a grading system that considered, among other things, the applicant’s: long-term business plan, planned safety measures, location convenience, record keeping, quality control and previous business experience.

“The quality of applications in this round was much improved,’’ said Cathy Cobb, director of DHHS’ Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services. “It was clear that these applicants studied the winning applications and as a result, scores were generally higher.”

Dispensary license holders not only may distribute medical marijuana or products containing the drug to registered patients or caregivers but also may grow the plants. Under the new law, growing sites may cultivate six plants for each registered patient.

Primary Organic Therapy also had submitted an application for a dispensary in York County with a growing operation in Sanford that would serve both the southern Maine and Whitneyville dispensaries. Since that application was not selected, the nonprofit’s board soon will discuss where to locate its District 7 growing operation, Brock said.

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