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BREWER, Maine — After asking questions about the legality of medical marijuana and two hours of review, the Brewer Planning Board approved the region’s first dispensary on Dirigo Drive by a 5-2 vote.
The clinic, where patients can legally buy marijuana — with a doctor’s prescription — to ease the pain of chronic diseases, is scheduled to open in a month.
Planning board members Craig Saunders and Frank Gallant voted against the site plan for Wellness Connection of Maine, which is leasing half of the building at 221 Dirigo Drive to operate the approximately 3,200-square-foot clinic.
Saunders and Gallant both asked numerous questions throughout the meeting, the first being whether possessing marijuana was against federal law.
“If something is illegal at the federal level doesn’t it trump” state laws, Saunders asked.
Maine voters first approved the use of medical marijuana in 1999 and a decade later expanded the law to include more medical conditions and allow medical marijuana patients to legally buy marijuana from nonprofit, government-sanctioned dispensaries or caregivers.
“Yes, medical marijuana still is federally illegal,” Rebecca DeKeuster, CEO of Wellness Connection of Maine, formerly known as Northeast Patients Group, said. “It’s legal in 16 states,” including Maine, and basically the federal government doesn’t get involved unless state rules are broken, she said.
Police Chief Perry Antone said that the president and attorney general have issued statements that deprioritize pursuing legally operating medical marijuana facilities.
“It’s just allowing us to turn a blind eye as long as they meet the statutes,” the police chief said.
Maine law does not allow doctors to be on site prescribing the drug like they do at similar facilities in California and Colorado where problems have arisen, Antone said.
“That, I think, is trouble,” the police chief said. “Not having that makes it a different business.”
The Brewer facility and others operated by Wellness Connection of Maine are not open to the public and employees are not allowed to release the names of doctors who have prescribed cannabis, DeKeuster said, adding that “a lot of folks come in trying to find out where they can get a referral.”
“Under state law, the facilities are only open to registered patients,” she said.
Most of the group’s patients are 40 to 50 years old and have cancer or other serious illness, she said. The dispensaries will offer medicinal pot in a variety of forms — smokable, cannabis butters, tinctures, baked goods and lozenges — the group’s website states.
When planners asked about how police will be able to tell a medical marijuana delivery driver from a drug dealer, the nonprofit’s CEO said that drivers will need to have a valid driver’s license and posses a card certifying them as employees and have a trip ticket to document they are working. The marijuana will be transported in a locked box, DeKeuster said.
“They also have to pass a state background check and a drug test,” she said after the meeting. “And we’ll have additional internal standards.”
Near the end of the meeting, Gallant asked whether employees had to be state certified. When DeKeuster said no, he responded by saying, “You can hire anybody you want with no training at all? This isn’t a hamburger joint, that is why I ask.”
Most clinics employ three or four people and one is usually a registered nurse, but there is no requirement, DeKeuster said.
Maine already has five licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Auburn, Biddeford, Ellsworth, Hallowell and Thomaston. The latter two are operated by Wellness Connection, which is permitted to operate four of the state’s eight clinics.
“Portland and Brewer will probably come online at around the same time,” DeKeuster said of the final two dispensaries the group will open.