BREWER, Maine — Medical marijuana patients no longer will have to register with the state to use the drug legally when several amendments to the state’s medical marijuana statute become law later this year.
The change is just one of several that will go into effect under LD 1296, “An Act to Amend the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act To Protect Patient Privacy,” which was signed on June 24 by Gov. Paul LePage.
The nonprofit trade association Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine will host a gathering to explain the changes from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Eastern Maine Labor Council, 20 Ivers St., Brewer.
Among other things, the amended law protects patient privacy, provides for better access to medical marijuana — especially for low-income residents — and prevents law enforcement from taking all of a patient’s personal supply, Paul McCarrier of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine said Monday.
“One of the things we’ve encountered is people have a lot of misinformation,” he said. “We just want to make sure people understand the law.”
The bill received unanimous approval from the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and passed the House and the Senate without debate, McCarrier said. The amended law takes effect in late September, and includes three major changes, he said.
“The first one is that patients no longer have to register with the state — it’s optional,” McCarrier said. “If you are a patient — it’s between you and your doctor.”
The second significant change allows patients to grow their own medical marijuana outside in fenced areas, while the third provides a new courtroom defense for those found with amounts that exceed the state’s limit of 2½ ounces per patient, he said.
The bill also makes registration optional for some primary caregivers — those who grow medical marijuana for members of the same household or family — and eliminates requirements that patients disclose their specific medical condition.
Qualifying patients who opt not to register with the state must have been “diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating medical condition and … possess a valid written certification regarding medical use of marijuana,” the amended law states.
That written certification from a doctor is good for one year and must be on tamper-resistant paper that prevents copying, modifying or counterfeiting, McCarrier said, adding that it also must have the name and contact information for the doctor.
“If a law enforcement officer has any doubts, they could call the doctor’s office and get verification,” he said.
Maine voters first approved the use of medical marijuana in 1999, and in November 2009 resoundingly supported expanding the law to include more medical conditions and the creation of nonprofit, government-sanctioned clinics and marijuana cultivation centers. The recent amendments modify the 2009 rules. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but 16 states, including Maine, and the District of Columbia have laws making it legal for medical use.
McCarrier said the fact that outdoor cultivation of marijuana will be allowed in a fenced area under the amended law is a significant improvement.
Requiring those growing medical marijuana to have an enclosed, locked facility “prevented a lot of people with a restricted income from growing it on their own,” he said. “It basically would force them to go to a dispensary. That was one of the major issues.”
“Marijuana has been Maine’s biggest crop for decades,” McCarrier declared. That being the case, he said, patients who use it for medical reasons should not be forced to pay a dispensary just because they can’t afford to build an enclosure to cultivate it.
The amended law also clarifies patient protections from law enforcement, McCarrier said.
Medical marijuana patients “may not be denied any right or privilege or be subjected to arrest, prosecution, penalty or disciplinary action,” states the amended law, which has subsections that prohibit seizure for qualified patients, primary caregivers and registered dispensaries.
However, if a patient, primary caregiver or registered dispensary possesses marijuana in excess of the limits, which are 2 ½ ounces per patient, the excess amount must be forfeited to a law enforcement officer, the amended law states.
The provision that allows patients to go to court and present a defense for possessing amounts that exceed the limits is another major improvement of the amended law, McCarrier said.
“It provides an affirmative defense,” he said. “It’s a courtroom motion that basically acknowledges that you are breaking the law, but there [are] extenuating circumstances. It allows the judge to have that legal discretion.”
Another significant change, not mentioned by McCarrier, changes the law’s wording to allow patients to possess up to six “mature” or harvestable female plants, not just six plants.
“In addition to the six mature plants, the patient who is cultivating the patient’s own marijuana may have harvested marijuana in varying stages of processing in order to ensure the patient is able to maintain supply and meet personal needs,” the amended law states.
Primary caregivers fall under the same provision.
Wednesday’s panel will include Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine members Hillary Lister, Jake McLure, Katherine Lewis and Paul McCarrier.
While some southern Maine doctors have provided prescriptions for medical marijuana, so far none in the Bangor-Brewer area are signed up to do so, McCarrier said.
Informational meetings are being held across the state to help educate residents about the medical marijuana law, he said.