Maine lawmakers trying to rein in large medical marijuana growers

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Erica Haywood, a medical marijuana caregiver from Farmington, testifies at Wednesday’s hearing on medical marijuana bills before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

AUGUSTA — State lawmakers want to overhaul Maine’s medical marijuana caregiver program.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee held hearings on seven new medical cannabis bills, ranging from a plan to tax adult-use cannabis to pay for medical cannabis testing to a bill that would allow opioid addicts to qualify for medical cannabis certification.

Over and over again, lawmakers and even some caregivers admitted the network that was once based on a neighbor-helping-neighbor philosophy had exploded in size and scale, warranting a new way to license and regulate an increasingly sophisticated industry.

Some lawmakers, like Rep. Paul Chace of Durham, want to crack down on caregivers, allowing them to treat only five patients a month and requiring caregivers to sell to patients in their home or at their grow, outlawing retail shops, to clean up what he calls “the wild, wild West.”

“I’ve lived this life of receiving drugs, being responsible for the patients who take drugs, and I’ve got rules, a board of pharmacy,” said Chace, a pharmacist by trade. “But this program, I hate to say it, but it’s referred to as the wild, wild West, and we just can’t have that.”

The state’s medical law currently allows licensed caregivers to serve no more than five patients at any one time. But a growing number of caregivers have become full-time professionals, using short-term patient designations to treat hundreds of patients a year and open up a store.

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Caregivers targeted this bill for elimination, saying caregivers can’t pay their bills if they only treat five patients a month. They said they need more than five paying patients to keep up a caregiver tradition of donating medicine to pediatric or low-income patients.

“The only way I am donating is through the five-patient rotation,” said Sean Wyatt, a Yarmouth caregiver. “Capping patients to four or five a month would destroy the caregiver community and force many patients into dispensaries, paying higher prices.”

Sen. Eric Brakey, R Auburn, a co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, wants to allow large or collective caregiver operations to become dispensaries. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

Others lawmakers, like Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, want to allow large or collective caregiver operations to become dispensaries. The license would cost more and come with more rules, but it would let the caregiver serve more patients, have a bigger grow and hire more workers.

“The number of caregivers has increased so much because there aren’t enough dispensaries to meet demand in Maine, especially in rural areas,” Brakey said. “We should consider letting them become what they already are, which is a dispensary, with all the rights and responsibilities.”

A lobbyist for the Wellness Connection, which runs four of the eight state-licensed dispensaries, said his client might be able to support that idea, so long as that meant they paid the same fees and followed the same rules that dispensaries have to follow.

Dan Walker told the committee that Wellness wants to see a moratorium on caregiver licenses until the state Department of Health and Human Services can fix problems, like caregivers who open shops that function as unlicensed, unregulated dispensaries.

“These stores and large collectives are operating like a dispensary with none of the same rules as a dispensary,” Walker said. “Some of their grows dwarf the size of dispensary grow, but they don’t have to follow all of the rules that a dispensary has to.”

Those rules include things like seed-to-sale tracking and becoming a nonprofit, Walker said.

An alternative would be to rein in most caregivers, but give more freedoms to superstars that do well on state inspections, said Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, allowing them to do things such as serve more patients, open a shop, buy and buy or sell with other caregivers.

“When we talk about the wild West, we focus on that fifth patient,” Hymanson said. “There are people who use that idea well and people who don’t, but it’s a problem. We are trying to figure out what the answer is to that problem.”

The committee will now hold work sessions on these bills, and will likely try to cobble together pieces from several into one large omnibus medical marijuana bill, Brakey said during a break in the hearing. The department that has regulatory oversight of the program has not yet weighed in, he noted.

Additional hearings will be held once the committee settles on a draft bill or slate of bills, Brakey said.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at:

poverton@pressherald.com

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