When Government Works for the People

Maine’s Evolving Medical Marijuana Program

By Mary Lou Smart

The Pine Tree State, a place of scenic beauty and rugged coastline, became the setting for an unlikely liaison recently when a Republican governor known for Tea Party beliefs, Paul LePage, signed off on a bill that

puts a medical cannabis program back in the hands of doctors, caregivers and patients. Sponsored by Republican House Representative Deb Sanderson, LD 1296 was written by Alysia Melnick, an attorney with Maine’s Civil Liberties Union.

Maine’s medical marijuana law was first passed in 1999 without much of a framework. A  voter’s  initiative  in 2009 added dispensaries, but the next year a rule-making process passed LD 1811, a law which was widely viewed as a gigantic step backwards with a mandatory registry and the loss of outdoor cultivation and legal protections. LD 1296 was created in reaction to LD  1811.  When asked about her support, Representative Sanderson stat- ed that legislators had used the rulemaking process to cir- cumvent the direction that the citizens had chosen with their vote. “The most important piece of this is that the citizens have a right to self-govern,” she said. “The direc- tion that the citizens wanted to go in was changed, and that negates our right to self-govern.”

LD 1296 put outdoor cultivation back into the program. The new law created a voluntary registry for patients with the provision that records on hand could be wiped out.

Patients pay no fees when voluntarily registering with the state, something that many choose to do when they are not worried about being stigmatized or harassed, an example given is the case of an older glaucoma patient who might like to carry more credible  identification  than a doctor’s recommendation to show if he or she is pulled over.

And there is an affirmative defense for patients, which is something that LD 1811 took away. LD 1296 prohibits

search, seizure, arrest, prosecution or penalty of patients or caregivers who present a valid registration card or an up-to-date doctor’s recommendation. “When patients have interaction with law enforcement, and law enforce- ment charges them with having more than 2.5 ounces, they have a legal defense,” said Paul McCarrier, legislative liaison with Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine (MMCM), a trade association. “I feel that we have a chance here in Maine with a law that works so well for patients. We will encourage the community to do things that will not put that law at risk.”

States’ Rights, Montana-Style

The move to support citizens  that worked  hard to create a medical marijuana program through public referendum is the exact opposite of what Republican legislators in the western state of Montana did, around the same  time, when they joined forces with the federal government to raid dispensaries. The same legislators had resisted any rule-making process to improve Montana’s regulation-lite program, and instead weaseled their way around the will of the citizens’ initiative as they forced through their own prohibitive legislation. The raids led to arrests, loss of livelihood, and loss of life savings. In Montana, many  argue that the timing of the first raids, just minutes after the citizens’ medical marijuana law was repealed in favor of the bogus cram-down, equates to shady dealings, also known as collusion.

Pundits love to scream about the Obama Administration bailing out big business at the expense of taxpayers. Here we have Obama Administration working with state governments in exact opposition to the will of the people, and Republicans that spend their waking hours  blabbing  about less government working with big government. Participating in this enormous expenditure of taxpayer dollars were the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States
Secret Service, and even Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Homeland Security Investigations.

LD 1296 prohibits search, seizure, arrest, prosecution or penalty of patients or caregivers who present a valid registration card or an up-to-date doctor’s recommendation.

Many provisions of Montana’s anti-medical marijuana program have been deemed unconstitutional by the first judge to rule on them, and the circus continues with law- suits aplenty. Patients lose out.

Patient-Friendly Maine

In eliminating mandatory registration, Maine’s legislators were trying to protect patients while promoting a work- able program. In light of what is occurring in states like Montana where the Obama Administration is using Homeland Security to hunt business people down like ter- rorists, Mainers have a strong wish to fly under the radar.

“Our biggest concern was patients being forced to register in a state-wide database,” said the bill’s author,  Alysia Melnick. “They were being required to submit personal and confidential medical information to the state. Databases can always be breached, and that is highly con- cerning.”

Maine legislators were supportive, and part of that came from a strong advocacy movement working hard to bring doctors and many, many patients to legislative hearings. Chris, a caregiver who wants to go by first name only,  is    a MMCM member. He first learned about medical mari- juana six years ago, just after his mother died of a brain tumor at age 53. Having watched her take up to 15 med- ications a day and endure chemotherapy and radiation, he decided that he wanted to spend his time helping people with natural methods of medication.

“It was around that time that I started becoming interest- ed in how herbs can provide people with what they need, instead of having Pfizer provide them with what they need,” he said. “Once you start diving into the  research and finding what that holds, you realize how natural ele- ments can help people who are really, really ill, and also help people from getting ill.”

In Maine, a caregiver can have up to five patients, and patients can receive up to five ounces of cannabis a month. Thanks to LD 1296, caregivers growing or buying cannabis for family members or household members do not have to pay a fee. All other caregivers must register with the state, and pay a $300 licensing fee per patient annually.

“This is one of the rare pieces of legislation passed by the state that did not require subsidies from the state, and it’s creating jobs for the state.” said Chris. “That’s a pretty darn cool thing.”

Estimating that 700 jobs have been created between doctors’ offices, caregivers and openings at dispensaries, MMCM printed several versions of pro-medical cannabis pins and handed them out to lawmakers at the opening of the Republican caucus. “We really applaud- ed legislators for approving this bill without grumbling or moaning,” he said. “There is just an overwhelming amount of support for medical cannabis, which is grat- ifying.”

Many attribute the state’s strong advocacy movement to Harry Brown’s Hill, a pro-legalization music festival in western Maine that dates back 21 years.

“People come out of that festival being able to plug in together to say that the citizens see this as very impor- tant,” said McCarrier.

Catherine Lewis, a caregiver, helps her husband grow cannabis. The two of them were seriously injured in a car accident 20 years ago, and her husband is disabled. Over the years, her husband has been able to wean him- self off of a boatload of pharmaceutical pain killers, and now medicates with cannabis only.

When LD 1296 was being written, several gathered in the evenings to work, without pay, at the Lewis’s home, often until 4 a.m. They also worked to make sure that patients, doctors and caregivers spoke to legislators. During public hearings, halls were packed to the gills and overflow rooms were filled.

“The media, unfortunately, just wants to portray the hippie types, and so that is all that you saw on TV, she said. “Actually, there were all kinds of people  there  from all walks of life, young and old, from parents with children with brain tumors, to the elderly, the little old lady with white hair, sharply dressed business people, and those who have nothing. Everybody came together and worked to get this through.”

Many hope that the old slogan, “As Maine  Goes,  so  Goes the Nation,” is once again the order of the day. Maine’s model is being adopted by other states such as Vermont, and used for the proposed program in New Hampshire.

“We think that the northern New England model is very responsible, in stark contrast to what we see in other states out west,” said Matt Simon, legislative analyst,

Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization lob- bying for reform.

At least for now, Maine’s program is fairly fluid, allow- ing patients to easily shift between growing for them- selves or accessing medicine through a caregiver or dis- pensary. The next hurdle is the rule-making process, which is already months behind schedule.

“We saw what can go wrong with LD 1811, so we want to be involved,” said Chris. One goal will be to facili-   tate an approval process for qualifying new conditions. Numerous conditions, including post-traumatic stress and many stomach ailments, are not approved.

And while budget deficits are taking legislators’ minds off of rule-making, one shining star in the state’s econo- my is its medical marijuana program, which is able to fund itself by collecting fees from dispensaries and some caregivers.

“This is one of the rare pieces of legislation passed by the state that did not require subsidies from the state, and it’s  creating jobs for the state.” said Chris. “That’s a pretty darn cool thing.”

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