A new medical cannabis reform bill is drawing mixed reviews from Maine’s caregiver network, the 3,000-strong mom-and-pop side of the state’s $50 million industry.
“There’s good stuff and there’s bad stuff,” said Dawson Julia, a caregiver who treats hundreds of patients out of his Unity shop. “It’s a big bill, but there’s a lot more good than bad. It would improve patient access and help caregivers expand their businesses. But some of the bad, it could be pretty bad, like requiring an engineer to sign off on extraction labs and giving municipalities a lot of opportunities to harass a little guy. It’s a compromise.”
The Health and Human Services Committee approved the omnibus reform bill 11-2 on Tuesday. Committee analysts are crafting the final wording of the bill now and will bring it back to the committee in several weeks for a final language review. Another set of analysts will come forward with a fiscal note that will predict how much it would cost to implement the bill and how much revenue it might generate. At that point, the bill goes to the full Legislature for a vote.
Upon legislative approval, the bill would go to Gov. Paul LePage for consideration. The state’s medical marijuana program has come under fire from the Republican governor and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, whose agency reluctantly oversees the medical marijuana program. They say that the program lacks oversight, administrative authority and resources. LePage has called for stricter caregiver regulations.
BILL WOULD REMOVE PATIENT CAP
The legislative committee that passed the reform bill agreed, but decided to reward those who abide by the stricter regulations with more freedom to grow their businesses.
The bill would eliminate the cap on the number of patients a registered caregiver can treat using the medicine harvested from 30 mature flowering plants, removing the limit of five patients at any one time that many caregivers had already been getting around by using short-term patient designations to treat hundreds of patients a year. It also would officially permit caregivers to open medical marijuana shops, which is something caregivers have been doing for more than a year without reprisal from the state.
Under the bill, caregivers could hire as many workers as needed and keep all of the unprocessed harvest from their 30-plant crop. Under current law, a caregiver can’t hire more than one employee or have more than 8 pounds of marijuana per registered patient, for a maximum amount of 40 pounds of unprocessed marijuana. In a good year, free of pests or disease, an expert outdoor grower could triple the size of his harvest under the new bill, growers said.
The bill also would allow caregivers to sell to each other so long as the total amount stays within 30 percent of either caregiver’s total sales. This new wholesale market will be helpful for small growers who want to offer their patients a wider range of products than they can currently produce and help them keep serving their patients even if they lose their own harvest to disease or mold. It also gives specialty edibles-makers, for example, a way to legally sell their product in the wider marketplace.
UNANNOUNCED STATE INSPECTIONS
But caregivers had to give up some liberties and submit to additional regulations to get these wins, including some its largest trade group has fought against for years.
Caregivers would have to submit to unannounced state inspections, even if they are smaller in-home growers, and participate in a seed-to-sale tracking system. Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine has loudly opposed both of these things, worried the confidential information would be used by the state or federal government to shut down or even jail caregivers and persecute patients who live in a state that has eliminated its patient registry to maintain privacy standards.
INDUSTRY MUST ADAPT TO RULES
But Catherine Lewis, the group’s director, said the group is relenting on these issues because it is time for the industry to tighten its standards if it wants to survive – and possibly even grow – in a state that is about to launch a recreational cannabis market. Through negotiations, the group has gotten the state to make certain concessions that should make both of these third-rail practices tolerable, Lewis said.
“We’re all trying to make the program better,” Lewis said. “You have to remember the department was ready to implement some of these things through rulemaking, with none of these concessions. We knew they were coming, and we did our best to make sure they were done in a responsible way, and that with that additional compliance, for those that follow the rules, and most of us do, we’d be able to do more.”
The bill would turn what are now police-type raids of caregivers’ homes, grow operations and shops into administrative compliance checks, complete with the opportunity to appeal a finding through an administrative hearing or to a judge. And unlike in other states, Maine would pay for the inventory software needed for tracking by creating an online portal where caregivers would enter their plant and sales information, using only a patient identification number.
Also under the bill, extraction labs would have to pay for an engineer’s certification to prove their processing equipment and method is safe rather than obtaining a permit or certification through the fire department, which is what other businesses in Maine that deal with potentially explosive gases, like automotive repair, can do. The bill also increases the number of dispensary licenses available, which Lewis worries will drown the market with product and drive small caregivers out of business.
‘THE BILL INCREASES PATIENT ACCESS’
The bill also clarifies municipal authority to regulate caregivers, requiring those who operate commercial operations out of their home to get home-occupation permits or those who operate storefronts to follow all zoning laws. While some caregivers argue that the towns already had this right and most opted not to exercise it, Julia, the Unity caregiver, and others worry that towns opposed to any kind of marijuana will try to use the bill to force caregivers out of business.
The committee co-chairman, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said the bill will not allow towns to prohibit caregiver operations altogether.
Caregivers will be watching the wording in this particular section of the bill carefully to see what powers the final version of the bill grants to municipalities.
“Nobody got it all, but that’s how compromise works,” Lewis said. “Most importantly, the bill increases patient access. That’s what we all got into the business for, right?”
The bill would eliminate the list of qualifying conditions that a patient must meet for a doctor to give them a certificate that allows them to grow, buy and possess medical cannabis. Under the bill, a doctor could certify any patient who, in their medical opinion, would benefit from using cannabis. That will increase the number of patients who can use the program. Under existing law, it is very difficult to add a medical condition to the state’s list of qualifying conditions.
Patients will no longer have to designate a single caregiver or dispensary as their source of medical cannabis, meaning they can now shop around for the best price and most appropriate delivery method for their medical condition. That will benefit small caregivers who specialize in one kind of medicinal cannabis, but can’t offer the range of product that any one patient might need, Lewis said.
Caregivers and advocates say it is too early for anyone to predict how the bill will fare outside of the Health and Human Services Committee.
Paul McCarrier of Legalize Maine, the group that wrote the adult-use citizen referendum question that passed in 2016, said his group is encouraged by the work coming out of committee, but it will wait to see the final language of the bill before deciding whether to support it. A single unexpected word or clause in an huge omnibus bill like this can impact patient access, caregiver business and political support for a bill like this one, he said.
“We think we like it, but we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “It gets really tricky when you have a big bill like this with so many different moving parts.”
Medical marijuana caregiver Dawson Julia serves hundreds of patients at his shop in Unity. He is concerned that one provision of the bill might let towns force caregivers out of business. (David Leaming/Morning Sentinel)