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DHHS wants to tighten reins on Maine’s small medical marijuana growers

Brendan Twist | The Forecaster
Brendan Twist | The Forecaster
Sean Wyatt trims medical marijuana plants Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at his Yarmouth primary caregiver facility, New England Alternative Care.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state agency charged with running Maine’s medical marijuana system wants more oversight of the more than 1,700 people who cultivate small amounts of medicinal marijuana for patients.

The small cultivators, known as caregivers, can serve as many as five patients, and grow no more than six plants per patient. In most cases, they must register with the state.

But the Department of Health and Human Services has no means of enforcing rules that require caregivers to follow the medical marijuana law, said Ken Albert, a former DHHS regulator who now runs the Maine Center for Disease Control.

For example, he said, DHHS can’t do random inspections of caregiver facilities, the way it can with other medical facilities, unless the caregiver approves. Even then, the caregiver isn’t obligated to turn over any information to the agency, he said.

DHHS has drafted a bill, LD 1392, which would tighten the rules under which caregivers operate, grant the department authority to enforce those rules and enact civil and criminal penalties for violations.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, who submitted the bill on the department’s behalf, told the Health and Human Services Committee on Friday that the bill is necessary to deal with caregivers who could be breaking the law — and who are getting away with it because of a lack of oversight.

“I strongly support the department having the teeth and the ability to bring more compliance and oversight into this program,” she said. “I think it’s a good program, [but] I think more oversight in this program will only make it better.”

Under Maine’s medical marijuana law, any qualified patient can grow his or her own marijuana. There are two types of commercial providers: the caregivers, who are meant to serve small numbers of patients who cannot grow their own plants or who choose not to, and dispensaries, which operate retail stores and can serve as many patients as they want, but who face much stricter scrutiny from DHHS.

Representatives of dispensaries told the committee Friday that they believe the measure would “level the playing field” between what they described as the Wild West of the caregiver system and the structured regulatory environment of the dispensaries.

The relative freedom enjoyed by caregivers “puts our entire state at risk of unwanted attention from the federal government,” which still sees marijuana cultivation as illegal activity, said Laura Harper, a lobbyist for the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators.

Caregivers, however, told lawmakers that there was no need for further regulation, and decried several specific provisions in the department’s bill.

For example, the measure would remove the provision of the medical marijuana law that allows family or household members to grow marijuana for qualified patients without obtaining a caregiver’s license, saying the cost of licensure would be too much for some low-income families to bear.

Caregivers also opposed civil and criminal penalties, a proposed limit of 2.5 ounces of marijuana per patient for any half-month period, and a prohibition on giving away medical marijuana for free, or from giving it to anyone other than their contracted patients.

“If I’m trying to find a patient, or a customer, my favorite thing to do is to give them a sample of my medicine,” said Brandon Boatman, a caregiver from Frankfort. “If I’m unable to give them a sample of my product, and we have to sign a contract just for them to try it, that’s not fair from a consumer point of view.”

Some caregivers also said the emphasis on penalties and investigations unfairly casts suspicion on the industry, treating them like potential criminals rather than medicinal agriculturalists. Others took issue with the idea that the system somehow favored them over the larger-scale dispensaries that can make much more money than they can.

State law allows for only eight dispensaries, which can serve an unlimited number of patients, while caregivers can serve six patients at most, including themselves.

“I’m tired of hearing dispensaries whine like we have some kind of advantages,” Boatman said. “I could sit here on my soapbox and complain that I’d like to be a dispensary.”

The Health and Human Services Committee will hold a work session on the bill at a later date.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

 


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