Legislative panel passes bill to expand medical marijuana program

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Maine’s medical marijuana program would undergo sweeping changes under a bill approved Wedneday by the Legislature’s health and human services committee.

The committee bill, which was approved by an 11-2 vote, would increase patient access to medical marijuana by allowing medical providers to certify an adult patient for any medical reason, give registered caregivers the ability to serve more patients, hire more workers and sell out of storefronts, and let dispensaries shed their nonprofit status to better compete in the marketplace. The number of dispensary licenses would increase from eight to 14.

“If the medical cannabis program is a circle, we want to draw a sharp line around that circle,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, committee chair. “We want a lot more freedom inside that circle for people to operate, but to make sure that things are not being diverted outside that circle to the black market.”

The committee bill would allow doctors to certify a patient to get a medical marijuana card for any therapeutic or palliative use the doctor deems appropriate, which would eliminate the existing list of qualifying conditions that must be met to get a medical marijuana card. It would let families of children with epilepsy, cancer or developmental or intellectual disabilities use medical cannabis with just one doctor’s approval, eliminating the need for a second opinion.

The bill would also allow patients to buy medical cannabis from any caregiver or dispensary without designating them as their sole provider as they must do now, so long as they stay under the personal possession limits set by the recreational marijuana law of 2.5 ounces of prepared marijuana every two weeks. The bill would prohibit any out-of-state medical marijuana patient from growing marijuana in Maine or transferring their marijuana to anyone else.

The bill eliminates the five-patient cap on the number of patients that a registered caregiver can treat, allowing them to sell cannabis to as many certified patients as they want with no more than 30 flowering plants at one time, and allows them to hire as many people as they want. Currently, caregivers can serve no more than five patients at one time and can only have one employee who is permitted to actually touch the plant.

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The bill allows registered caregivers to operate storefront operations, something more and more of them have been doing even though opponents say it is illegal.

But with these additional freedoms would come additional responsibilities. The bill would require registered caregivers to institute a seed-to-sale tracking system, making it easier for the state to check for tax compliance and prevent diversion into the black market, and require storefront operators to adopt security measures similar to those used by medical marijuana dispensaries.

This story will be updated.

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