AUGUSTA, Maine — Doctors, not Maine legislators, should have the final say on whether patients should be allowed to use marijuana to treat their illnesses, say supporters of an effort to expand the state’s medical marijuana law.
One such supporter, Rep. Deborah J. Sanderson, R-Chelsea, on Monday presented LD 1296, which, in addition to giving doctors the power to recommend marijuana to their patients as they see fit, would remove the requirement that medical marijuana patients register with the state before they can legally use the drug.
The issue, she said, is simple: Doctors are best qualified to recommend medical treatments to their patients, and marijuana is legal for medical use.
But under current law, which was amended by referendum in 2009, medical marijuana can be used to treat only certain conditions, including glaucoma or symptoms associated with debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis and AIDS.
Those limits, Sanderson said, take the power out of the hands of experts.
“Let the physician determine what conditions this form of treatment is appropriate for,” she said, asking her fellow members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee to put themselves in a situation in which they were diagnosed with a grave illness, but their doctor-approved treatment was subject to state approval.
Sanderson’s challenge to the committee members drew applause from many in the crowded hearing room, where Dr. Dustin Sulak waited in line to testify before the committee.
Sulak, an osteopathic doctor who practices in Hallowell, said the state’s limits on recommending marijuana don’t make a lot of sense from a clinician’s perspective.
Sulak used the example of a patient with abdominal pain, diarrhea and bleeding associated with Crohn’s disease. Sulak could recommend marijuana for that patient but could not do the same for a patient with the same symptoms due to ulcertative colitis.
Sulak noted there is a mechanism to expand the list of treatable conditions, but the group that is supposed to take such requests has not been formed.
While supporters of expanding the law outnumbered opponents at Monday’s hearing, critics of Sanderson’s bill did have their say.
Kristin Murray-James, testifying on behalf of the Maine Medical Association, said eliminating the list of treatable illnesses and allowing doctors to recommend marijuana to treat any medical condition would be unwise.
“As Maine’s medical marijuana law is still quite new … we believe that a conservative approach is warranted,” said Murray-James, arguing that the current list of conditions is sufficient to assist most patients.
In a sense, Maine’s medical marijuana law — although first passed more than a decade ago — is relatively new.
In 2009, voters approved changes to the law that expanded the list of treatable illnesses and allowed for the opening of state-run dispensaries. The referendum also included a voluntary registry for patients as a way to confirm their medical status with police.
After the statewide vote, then-Gov. John Baldacci signed an executive order to convene a task force to implement the changes. It was during that process that the registry became mandatory, and as of Jan. 1, patients must register with the Department of Health and Human Services and pay a fee of $100, or $75 for low-income Mainers enrolled in the state’s Medicaid system.
Sanderson’s bill would again make the registry voluntary. That would protect patient privacy as well as the intent of the citizen-initiated referendum, she said.
The mandatory registry has consequences, said Alysia Melnick, an attorney with the Maine Civil Liberties Union. Many patients have turned to the black market rather than register with the state and essentially admit to using a drug that is illegal under federal law, she said.
“People shouldn’t have to fear going to jail or paying fines for accessing the medication they need to alleviate their suffering,” reads Melnick’s testimony.
Marijuana has become a popular topic at the State House this session, with several bills dealing with the drug. Among them is an effort to legalize and tax marijuana.
Committee members will hold a work session on LD 1296 on Monday, May 2.