AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Health and Human Services official responsible for the state’s medical marijuana program said Tuesday the department plans no policy changes for the program following the departure of the program’s manager.
Kenneth Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services at DHHS, confirmed Tuesday that John Thiele was no longer employed as head of the Maine Medical Marijuana Use Program. In a prepared statement, Albert said Thiele submitted his resignation on Sept. 28, then asked several days later to rescind his decision to quit. His last day of work was to be Oct. 20.
“After careful consideration, the department did not accept this request,” Albert said in the statement. “As this is a personnel matter — and out of respect for Mr. Thiele — we will make no further comment on this matter.”
Reached at his home Tuesday afternoon, Thiele confirmed these details but declined to comment further. He told the Bangor Daily News on Monday that he’s planning to appeal the decision by DHHS.
Albert said DHHS is searching for a permanent replacement for Thiele. In the interim, Director of Community Programs Joan Smyrski, Thiele’s immediate supervisor, is taking over day-to-day management of the medical marijuana program.
“It is important to note that the [medical marijuana program] is not changing direction,” Albert said in his statement. “The Legislature has set the direction for this program and it is our intent to follow that direction.”
News about Thiele’s departure started to swirl late last week when people attending the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine trade show in Portland were told that he had been terminated from his position.
His departure started to raise concerns among medical marijuana advocates that a change in policy direction was imminent and that the program wouldn’t function as well in Thiele’s absence.
“Our concern is that this [change] not be a signal of an attitude or policy that would be less open to patient concerns and caregiver concerns,” said Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “John was open to hearing from patients and caregivers and advocates for those in that community. We just want to make sure that that continues.”
“When you remove someone with that much experience in the program, it’s going to stop running smoothly,” said Paul McCarrier, legislative liaison for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine.
As evidence, McCarrier said law enforcement increasingly have sought and had courts grant search warrants recently that have allowed them to search marijuana growing operations licensed by the state.
Albert addressed this concern in the statement he released Tuesday. “We have long recognized the need to strengthen communication with many parties, especially law enforcement, in order to create consistency and a shared knowledge around where the program rules and the law intersect,” he said.
Melnick said the law enforcement search issue largely came down to the ability for law enforcement agencies to obtain information from the state about which growing operations are licensed.
“The vast majority of law enforcement that we’ve talked to and encountered, they don’t want to be searching and arresting lawful patients,” she said. “Their interest is in investigating and prosecuting people who are doing things illegally.”
Thiele’s departure came before new rules proposed over the summer for the state’s medical marijuana program are finalized. A public hearing in August attracted dozens of patients and caregivers opposed to the rule proposals, which they said would make it too expensive to grow the marijuana that many depend on to manage pain, nausea and other chronic conditions.
The proposed rules floated by DHHS would have required that all marijuana be grown in enclosed, locked facilities surrounded by eight-foot-tall fences “that completely obscure the view” of the growing marijuana. In addition, the rules would have required motion-activated lights around marijuana-growing facilities as a theft prevention measure.
DHHS’ Albert said Tuesday that the medical marijuana rules are “nearing completion with amendments based on public comment” and that Thiele’s departure wouldn’t have any impact on the rules’ adoption.