Marijuana in Maine: The patients, the politics, the future

Posted July 21, 2013, at 6:03 a.m.
Last modified July 21, 2013, at 6:18 p.m.

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David Boyer, the Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, hands out fliers about marijuana at the Moxie Festival last weekend in Lisbon Falls. He plans to collect signatures for a citizen initiative in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana use in Maine if the state Legislature doesn't pass something sooner.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
David Boyer, the Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, hands out fliers about marijuana at the Moxie Festival last weekend in Lisbon Falls. He plans to collect signatures for a citizen initiative in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana use in Maine if the state Legislature doesn't pass something sooner.
David Boyer, the Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, left, talks with David Fisher, visiting from California, about marijuana on the sidewalk during last Saturday's Moxie Festival in Lisbon.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
David Boyer, the Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, left, talks with David Fisher, visiting from California, about marijuana on the sidewalk during last Saturday's Moxie Festival in Lisbon.

“Patrick” eats half a marijuana-laced brownie every night to keep away chronic diabetic nerve pain.

The Sabattus man has a note from his doctor and buys from the local dispensary.

Two years ago, “Barbie” in Peru secretly swapped legal prescription painkillers for marijuana for her chronic neck pain, growing one or two plants on the sly.

In May, she got a license to grow. She’s legit and no longer afraid of getting busted, but now worries about someone breaking in and stealing her plants.

“Nick,” of Nobleboro, is waiting for the crop in his $2,500, temperature-controlled grow room to mature so he can wean himself off prescription narcotics.

“[Marijuana's] effects are instantaneous, and it’s also very short-lived,” he said. “If I take oxycodone and morphine, I’m along for the ride for the next six hours, whether I want it or not.”

Four years after voters set in motion the mechanics of a medical marijuana law, an estimated 13,000 patients use it in Maine.

And numbers are growing.

Last year, at least 68 Maine physicians wrote recommendations for medical marijuana, and businesses selling it racked up $5 million in sales, blowing the doors off projections.

The Legislature this session passed six of eight proposed medical marijuana bills, two as emergencies.

And it’s not just about medical marijuana. A move to legalize marijuana for all Maine adults by sending the issue to referendum failed by only a handful of votes in the House this session. Advocates say they’ll collect 57,000 signatures to push a statewide referendum in 2016 if one more legislative effort fails.

Portland must decide much sooner: Residents will vote Nov. 5 on whether to welcome marijuana in the city.

“I don’t want to rule out that we would put it on the ballot in other cities next year, maybe Bangor, Waterville, Lewiston-Auburn,” said David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

While some studies purport to show marijuana use can lead to drops in IQ or an increased risk for issues such as schizophrenia, Boyer hopes as Portland goes, so goes Maine — and he’s feeling good about Portland.

‘Exceeded estimates’

Maine voters approved medical marijuana in a referendum in 1999 on a grow-your-own basis and set up the current nonprofit dispensary system with a second referendum in 2009.

Today, as long as they follow statute, Maine doctors don’t have to tell the state that they’re recommending patients use medical marijuana, according to Marietta D’Agostino, director of the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Program.

After changes to the fledgling law, patients don’t have to tell the state they’re using it, either.

The count of 68 doctors, from a soon-to-be-released report, comes from a check of paperwork when patients voluntarily register with the state. The perk for registering: a license-sized card. Don’t register, and you have to carry an oversized physician’s certification on tamper-proof paper.

In addition to eight dispensaries — operations such as Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn — patients can choose to cultivate their own marijuana at home or have someone else grow it for them. Most caregivers, or growers, must be licensed and can grow for up to five patients (and themselves) up to six plants each.

This spring, the state had 1,700 caregivers and more than 1,400 voluntarily registered patients.

Initially, many caregivers also were patients, said Paul McCarrier, legislative liaison for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. “Now we’re seeing that there are more people who are becoming caregivers, almost like a part-time job. We’ve seen a resurgence of agriculture in this state over the past five years; there’s a lot of these people who are very skilled in growing all sorts of plants.”

There’s no set statewide price, McCarrier said, but anecdotally, as more growers have entered the market, the cost has dropped from between $250 and $300 an ounce in 2010 to $175 to $250 an ounce in 2013.

In his experience, the average patient is between age 30 and 50, treating chronic pain and using an ounce a week.

“It can get very expensive,” McCarrier said.

He’s in the middle of a study, asking patients how much they save on conventional prescriptions because they’re using medical marijuana instead.

Michael Allen, associate commissioner for tax policy at Maine Revenue Services, said the state originally projected taking in $75,000 in taxes on medical marijuana and paraphernalia sales.

Last year, it collected $265,655.

“It has certainly exceeded our estimates,” Allen said.

It’s the law

In front of the Maine Legislature this session, lawmakers set ranges for medical marijuana licensing fees, OK’d limited pesticide use and added post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of “debilitating medical conditions” for which the drug can be prescribed.

“As one [veteran] put it to me very clearly, he really wanted to get off Prozac and try something more natural and more gentle, and I couldn’t argue with that,” said Rep. Elizabeth Dickerson, D-Rockland, the last bill’s sponsor.

A new law from Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, allows caregiver growers to hire help. He’d asked for up to two employees, but it was winnowed to one.

It started with a constituent request.

“I didn’t know anything about marijuana or medical marijuana, so they had to explain the whole thing to me from the beginning to the end,” Gilbert said. “The way I understand, sometimes a plant is very productive — just like tomato plants — and it’s quite a job to plant it, cultivate it and then process the product.”

It became law two weeks ago. McCarrier has already heard of 30 people hiring helpers.

Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, a past member of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control, sponsored legislation after a grower tried to thwart an insect attack with off-the-shelf pesticides.

“They were very happy aphids,” quipped Saviello. “[Growers] figured, ‘Well, if it’s a general-use pesticide, if I can buy it at the grocery store or I can buy it at the hardware store, I can put it on my crops.’ Well, you can’t do that.

“What we discovered, which is not a surprise [on your average bottle of pesticide], marijuana is not listed as one of the plants that you can treat with pesticides,” he said. “A normal bottle hasn’t been licensed for that, because marijuana, in the sense of crops, is illegal. It makes a lot of sense. They’re in this dilemma, ‘OK, what can we use?’”

The solution allows certain mild pesticides.

Dickerson, Gilbert and Saviello all supported a proposal sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, that would have triggered a statewide vote on recreational use. The bill ultimately failed.

“I said, ‘Let the people decide,’” Saviello said.

Some police officers have told him it’s time to make it legal, he said. “We’re losing the battle,” they tell him.

“But I’ve had other police officers make it very clear that … when they catch the bad guy with it, they can oftentimes get back to the really bad drugs that are out there. So I have very mixed feelings about it.

“If I were to bet,” he said, “it will be legalized probably within 20 years.”

Legal for some, but not for all

In all, 71 members of the House voted to kill Russell’s bill to send the issue to voters, while 67 voted for it, which Boyer reads as a small victory. Those 67 members were made up of 48 Democrats, 18 Republicans and one independent.

“If the politicians don’t wake up by [next session], then we will be putting it on the ballot for 2016,” he said.

Colorado and Washington state have approved marijuana for recreational use. Boyer believes Maine will follow.

“They know it’s coming to Maine — the issue of ending marijuana prohibition —and, frankly, it does make sense to get ahead of the issue instead of scrambling after the fact when it is passed via citizen initiative,” he said.

Boyer’s immediate focus is on Portland. That measure would allow adults to possess up to 2½ ounces of marijuana. It would apply to those 21 and over, and wouldn’t allow public smoking.

In the 2009 statewide referendum, Portland supported medical marijuana in a 20,352 to 6,649 vote, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Boyer calls marijuana the “less addictive, less toxic, safer alternative” to alcohol.

Guy Cousins calls it a problem.

Last year, 17 percent of all drug arrests in Maine were for marijuana and 4,279 people seeking treatment for drug addiction named marijuana as one of their problem drugs.

Its negative effects on a person are influenced by the quantity and frequency of use, genetics and routes of ingestion, said Cousins, the head of Maine’s Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

“It’s not as simple as, if it’s this, it’s that,” he said.

Studies that link it to serious issues such as schizophrenia, “there’s probably as much research supporting it as refuting it,” he said.

Marijuana use can cause mood shifts, perception of reality shifts and feelings of euphoria. “Euphoria is a false sense of well-being, so you feel good but it’s fake, and then you make decisions based on perception that tells you what you think is good,” Cousins said.

“Patrick” in Sabattus said he didn’t want to go on traditional pain pills to soothe the pins-and-needles feeling in his legs at night.

“It kept me from sleeping,” he said. “When I do the edibles, I’m not getting high; I don’t need that euphoric feeling.”

He wants to see marijuana remain for medicinal use only. “It’s a medication; I want it to be a medication.”

“Patrick” declined to use his real name in case it interfered with his employment. “Barbie” and “Nick” declined out of safety concerns. And one local grower turned down an interview — period.

Despite state law, there’s still stigma and fear of the federal government, McCarrier said.

“We want to really come out of the closet,” he said. “We want to be able to go to the coffee shop in the morning and walk in there and everyone will be like, ‘There’s Paul, he’s a medical marijuana caregiver,’ not, ‘Oh, there’s Paul, he grows pot, boo.’”

In Maine, he sees that day coming.

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