In a rare show of cooperation during a generally divisive legislative session, lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a proposal to expand access to marijuana under the state’s medical marijuana program.
A second bill that seeks to legalize and tax marijuana in Maine was voted down in a divided decision by the Criminal Justice Committee, but the issue promises to resurface in the future.
The first measure, LD 1296, would make registration with the state voluntary for patients who wish to use marijuana under the supervision and support of their physician, a measure intended to protect the privacy of patients, according to bill sponsor Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea.
Some people will prefer to register in order to ensure they do not run afoul of law enforcement agencies, Sanderson said Tuesday, but people should not be forced to be listed in a state registry to seek lawful therapeutic medical treatment.
The bill includes a number of other provisions that clarify and change the operations of the state’s medical marijuana program, which was established more than a decade ago and overhauled through a citizen referendum in 2009.
Subsequent rulemaking resulted in a tightly regulated network of patients, doctors, growers and storefront dispensaries that some critics say violates the expressed will of the voters for a more open system.
Sanderson’s bill had its public hearing on April 25 and had strong support from the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which argued for the increased access and less restrictive registration process the bill proposes.
The bill drew opposition from the Maine Medical Association for its proposed elimination of the list of specific conditions for which marijuana can be approved. The Maine Medical Association lifted its objections after the amended version approved on Tuesday restored a slightly expanded list of conditions.
Other provisions in the original bill had raised the concerns of the Department of Health and Human Services, which regulates the program. But the amended version satisfied all stakeholders at the public hearing, resulting in the unanimous committee vote.
Sanderson was quick to praise the revision process that enabled the bill’s endorsement.
“There was a lot of misinformation out there, but once we sat down together we were able to come very close to consensus,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Criminal Justice committee took testimony on a bill that would legalize the use, purchase and possession of up to one pound of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use. The bill, LD 1453, would impose a tax of 7 percent on the sale of marijuana with revenues directed to programs that support small farmers, law enforcement agencies, residential weatherization programs and higher education.
Sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, the bill would allow an individual to cultivate and store marijuana for personal use and license up to 300 commercial growers. It would allow state-licensed dispensaries to sell to customers age 21 and over.
In presenting her legislation to the Criminal Justice Committee, Russell compared the federal prohibition against marijuana to the failed constitutional prohibition against alcohol in effect from 1920 to 1933, which ushered in illegal, Mafia-controlled trafficking.
“We have absolutely no control over the marijuana market,” she said. “And because we have no control, the vast majority of the drug trade is in the hands of criminals.” Allowing marijuana to be regulated, taxed and sold responsibly to law-abiding adults would “siphon the life out of the drug trade,” she said.
Russell brought in Lt. Jack Cole, former narcotics officer with the New Jersey State Police and founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition to testify in support of her bill. Cole called the nation’s war on drugs “a self-perpetuating and constantly expanding policy disaster.”
He decried the amount of time and money spent in prosecuting drug violations. While agencies are busy trying to round up marijuana offenders, he said, more serious crimes go unsolved and unprosecuted.
“There’s more important things for us to work on than a bunch of people smoking pot, guys,” Cole told committee members.
The bill was opposed by the Maine Department of Public Safety and the Office of Substance Abuse.
Lawmakers discussed a recent round of letters to states from U.S. Attorneys emphasizing the federal prohibition against marijuana, including state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs that are creating problems for law enforcement agencies. Maine, which has a tightly regulated program, has not received such a letter.
Committee member Sanderson said Maine is unlikely to draw federal scrutiny for its medical marijuana program, but that an effort to legalize marijuana altogether could focus unwanted attention on the program.
“I am not in favor of legalization at all, but even if I were I would not vote for this bill” for fear of jeopardizing the medical program, she said.
Other committee members ranged broadly in their views of the issue. Retired state trooper Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he opposed any effort to ease state or federal drug laws. He said marijuana serves as a gateway drug to more serious substances and predicted that legalizing marijuana in Maine would attract drug traffickers and commercial growers to the state.
“I can see them coming here in droves if we pass this law,” he said.
Rep. Ann Haskell, D-Portland, recounted her adult daughter’s traumatic experience with uterine cancer. A “tortuous” treatment with chemotherapy drugs left her daughter too nauseated to eat or drink anything, she said, and it was only the then-clandestine availability of marijuana that eased her sickness.
Haskell acknowledged that Russell’s bill, as written, is unlikely to find legislative support. But she and others on the committee urged the possibility of a citizen’s referendum on the issue.
“I think we need to hear from the people where we need to go with drug policy in this country, and I am willing for it to start here,” she said.
After the 8-3 committee vote against her proposal, Russell thanked her fellow lawmakers for reviewing it with professionalism and open minds.
“When you bring forward a bill like this, some people assume you’re doing it because you want to go out and smoke a lot of pot,” she said. “That’s obviously not the case. This is not a fringe issue; it’s a very mainstream issue.”