In a little more than two weeks, Maine residents will go to the polls to vote on a measure that would build on the state's decade-old existing medical marijuana law by creating a system of dispensaries. Despite some grumbling from the usual suspects and announced opposition from some not-so-usual suspects, proponents of the measure say they are confident it will win easily on November 3.
- Establish a system of nonprofit dispensaries which would be overseen and tightly regulated by the state;
- Establish a voluntary identification card for medical marijuana patients and caregivers;
- Protect patients and caregivers from arrest, search and seizure unless there is suspicion of abuse;
- Create new protections for qualified patients and providers in housing, education, employment and child custody;
- Allow patients with Lou Gehrig's disease and Alzheimer's disease access to medical marijuana;
- Require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a procedure for expanding the list of conditions for which marijuana can be used; and
- Keeps current allowable marijuana quantities at 2.5 ounces and six plants.
When voters go to the polls on November 3 to vote on Question 5, the Medical Marijuana Act, this is the question they will be asked: "Do you want to change the medical marijuana laws to allow treatment of more medical conditions and to create a regulated system of distribution?"
"We feel the campaign is in really good shape right now," said Jonathan Leavitt, who is leading the charge for the initiative.
The existing law needs reform to make it workable, Leavitt said. "In the 10 years since the medical marijuana law went into effect, it has barely been utilized because patients have not had a legal means of obtaining their medicine except to grow their own, and that's just not workable for a seriously ill patient," he said. "With this measure, qualified patients will have full access to their medicine through the establishment of not-for-profit medical marijuana dispensaries."
The measure's language protecting patients from discrimination in housing, employment, and child custody issues is necessary because patients have suffered in the past, Leavitt said. "This will provide a security blanket for qualified patients by really putting in black and white the full legal protections they need."
The child custody provision says that medical marijuana patients cannot be denied visitation or custody of a minor child unless their behavior is "unreasonably dangerous to the minor." That provision drew criticism from the Maine Prosecutors Association, which announced last month it is opposing the measure, but is not putting money into doing so.
"This law reeks of paranoia that the entire criminal justice system is not to be trusted," said association president Evert Fowle, without a hint of irony. Medical marijuana patients across the country, including Maine, have seen their children seized or have lost custody battles solely because of their medical marijuana use or production.
Physicians in Maine can be found on both sides of the question. Dr. John Woytowicz, a family physician in Augusta, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, "I don't start with medical marijuana as the first choice for a medical condition. It's part of a whole assessment of what can be done for a given condition. And I put it very frankly to the patient that I would like to explore all opportunities and this could be one of the options as well. My experience is for the appropriate patient, it can be a good option for them, and most people have been benefitted by it with the minimal amount of side effects." Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist with Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook, told MPBN, "I would advocate for limiting access to marijuana and not to regard it as a medication."
The measure has drawn fire from one unexpected direction: the Maine Vocals, a group of longtime marijuana and medical marijuana legalization activists. The Vocals and its offshoot, Maine Citizens for Medical Marijuana, have announced they oppose the initiative.
"I favor what we have now and working to make it better," said Maine Vocals founder Don Christen. "But this isn't the way. They're just instilling the government into this program, and the government doesn't want it to work," he said.
"The initiative puts DHS in charge of the distribution centers and the overall medical marijuana law, and we're not happy about that because that's the department that has been taking people's children away," said Christen. "DHS is like law enforcement when it comes to medical marijuana. We would like instead to see it in a different department's hands, and with a board of patients and doctors instead of politicians."
"When it came to administering the dispensaries, it was either law enforcement or the Department of Human Services," Leavitt replied. "We thought DHS would be a better fit for questions around the medicinal use of marijuana. DHS also has a mandate to deal with child custody issues, so we included the child custody language because we want it crystal clear that patients will be protected, including around these issues."
Christen also took issue with the $5,000 fee required of dispensary operators. "That's a bit ridiculous," he snorted. "The cost will be prohibitive for a lot of people."
Leavitt responded that such fees had worked in other states and that they were necessary to ensure the measure did not impose a burden on taxpayers.
Christen also objected to the patient ID card system on both philosophical and practical grounds. "After 9/11, Maine opted out of the federal Real ID program," he said. "We don't believe in making lists of everybody up here. And the ID card system gives rights and privileges to those with cards that other patients don't have."
About that, Christen is correct, but only to a point. To enjoy the full protections of the measure, patients, caregivers, and dispensary operators must register with the state and obtain an ID card. Qualifying patients who do not obtain an ID card could still be subject to arrest, but could present their status as medical marijuana patients as an affirmative defense to prosecution and move to have the charges dismissed. But those same patients can be arrested today.
Christen also complained that the measure would bar people who have marijuana felonies from acting as caregivers or dispensary operators or employees. "Those who have marijuana felonies, including myself, will be taken out of the picture," he said, noting that he himself had only gotten out of jail on a marijuana charge 10 days ago.
"We say they haven't read the bill," Leavitt responded. "They talk about how they are fearful they will be knocked out of the loop because they are marijuana felons, but marijuana felons would not be considered felons under this measure."
Actually, the language is a bit ambiguous. It says that someone convicted of a "felony drug offense" cannot be affiliated with a dispensary, but also says that doesn't apply if the felony is more than 10 years old or if it was "an offense that consisted of conduct that would have been permitted under this chapter." Whether Christen would qualify might depend on whether the medical marijuana growing he was convicted for was found to be consistent with the new law's cultivation provisions, and perhaps with yet-to-be-written regulations.
Leavitt wasn't pleased with the not-so-friendly fire. "The Maine Vocals just haven't done the work to get something on the ballot, let alone passed," Leavitt said. "They're doing a great disservice to patients by speaking out against us."
But even with the criticism from the Vocals, it appears that Maine will be the next medical marijuana state to adopt the dispensary system.