AUGUSTA — A public hearing will be held Thursday on a citizen initiative, passed last fall, that authorizes the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries.
Members of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee will be presented with a modified version of the legislation developed for implementation by a task force.
Limited medical marijuana use has been legal in Maine since 1999, but there was no legal way to obtain it. Marijuana use is still illegal on the federal level, but last year the Obama administration announced it would not pursue federal charges in states that had legalized it.
The task force, which included the state commissioners of health and human services and public safety, lawmakers and people representing the public, modeled many of the provisions on laws in New Mexico, which has allowed dispensaries for about a year.
The initiative calls for all expenses to be paid for via fees assessed on dispensaries and patients, but the task force determined that until the final language is settled, the Department of Health and Human Services could not determine the overall cost of the program.
According to the Maine proposal, approved dispensaries must be nonprofit but not tax-exempt.
Medical conditions covered by the proposal include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn's Disease, Alzheimer's and post-traumatic stress disorder.
An advisory board made up of eight doctors and two members of the public, one of whom must be certified to use medical marijuana, would review and recommend approval for additional permitted conditions, according to the proposal. They would meet for a public hearing at least once a year.
Photo identification cards would be issued to qualified patients at least 18 years old. Younger patients would be required to have a doctor explain the risks of use and would have to receive parental consent. Convicted drug felons would not be issued cards.
Caregivers would also be issued identification cards, which would permit them to transport the marijuana from the dispensary to patients. They would only be permitted to help five patients at a time.
In Maine, the information supplied by qualified patients, primary caregivers and doctors would be confidential. DHHS would maintain a confidential list of people with cards and would inform law-enforcement officials.
Protections against discrimination are also included in the measure. Schools, employers and landlords would not be allowed to discriminate against users unless failing to do so would put them at risk of losing federal money. Medical marijuana users' parental rights or contact with minors may not be denied as a result of their use. Doctors who prescribe marijuana also cannot be subject to penalties.
The bill permits patients to possess up to 2½ ounces of usable marijuana or a maximum of six plants at a time. Approved caregivers can only possess up to that amount per patient they help. Dispensaries would only be allowed to sell patients a maximum of 2½ ounces of usable marijuana every 15 days. California, another state with legal dispensaries, has no limitation on the amount dispensaries can sell each patient.
Cardholders who give or sell marijuana to a person not allowed to have it would have their cards revoked.
Smoking marijuana would not be allowed in any public place, and the proposal includes restricting dispensaries from being within 500 feet of any school, public or private. There is no predetermined number of dispensaries included in the measure. Municipalities are authorized to enact "reasonable" zoning regulations for the dispensaries.
Both Lewiston and Auburn have enacted temporary moratoriums on dispensaries to allow city officials to come up with appropriate zoning codes.
Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett mentioned the issue at a staff meeting on Wednesday and urged officials to start moving ahead with planning regulations.
“Everyone recognized that the voters expressed their opinion at the polls and we need to find a way to implement it at the local level so that it works for the community,” Barrett said. “The biggest issue for us is to look at the zoning ordinances and find out where it's appropriate.”
Auburn City Manager Glenn Aho said the dispensaries don't fit in any current business code category, so city officials will follow a similar path to what they did with zoning for windmills.
“It's a medical issue and we want to ensure that it's done properly,” Aho said.
The legislation would require a one-year review and a report must be presented before the Legislature in January.