BANGOR — A local group of medical marijuana patients is renting a space downtown where they can smoke or ingest their medicine.
A group calling itself the 13 Owls Club is renting on an hourly basis the VIP smoking area above the recently expanded hookah lounge run by the Herbal Tea & Tobacco shop in the heart of the city, Herbal Tea owner Christopher Ruhlin said during a recent interview.
“We have doctors, lawyers and architects, and these people depend on a discreet, professional environment,” said Ruhlin, adding that he is a medical marijuana patient advocate and a member of the club.
Ruhlin, citing medical privacy laws, declined to say how many people have joined the club, which he said is named for the 13 founding members who adopted the owl as a mascot after reading about the birds in a Bangor Daily News article.
Before the club recently started renting the space, he said, members who work downtown usually hid their medical marijuana use, sometimes taking their medicine in their cars parked in the covered city parking garage.
“That is what a lot of people do,” Ruhlin said. “I think that’s unfortunate. They feel like criminals. Even the lawyers lament on it, saying, ‘I can’t get past this feeling we’re doing something wrong.’”
Herbal Tea is not the first space in Maine rented by medical marijuana patients to use and discuss the medicinal plant. They gathered in April at the third annual Homegrown Maine 2014 trade show at the Spectacular Event Center in Bangor, where a smoking room was set up outside for those with medical marijuana cards to use.
“We’ve done it at the Augusta Civic Center, the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland and Spectacular Event center in Bangor,” said Paul McCarrier, president of the Legalize Maine public action committee, who was part of the Caregivers of Maine when he helped organize Bangor’s gathering earlier this year. Legalize Maine seeks to make recreational use of marijuana legal statewide.
Maine voters approved the medical marijuana law in 1999. Voters returned to the polls in 2009 and supported expanding the law to include more permitted medical conditions and to allow patients to legally buy from eight nonprofit, government-sanctioned clinics and marijuana cultivation centers.
The law was amended in 2011, eliminating the need for patients to register with the state, and again in 2013, adding post-traumatic stress disorder, inflammatory bowel disease and other illnesses to the list of conditions for which a physician may prescribe medical marijuana.
Amendments made earlier this year allow the use of marijuana concentrates and replace the word physician with the words “medical provider” to allow nurse practitioners to prescribe the medication.
“There are no laws or rules prohibiting qualified patients from gathering in one location to consume medicinal marijuana other than on a school bus, on the grounds of a preschool, primary or secondary school, or in a correctional facility,” Sarah Grant, Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said Monday in an email interview. “Further, smoking marijuana may not occur on public transportation or in a public place. That said, the Department cannot speak to municipal zoning ordinances or other local regulation that may prohibit this activity.”
Paul Nicklas, assistant city solicitor, said Bangor has local ordinances that cover medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities, and they follow the state’s rules on use.
“Its use in a private setting is generally allowed,” Nicklas said.
That would change if it was discovered people without patient cards were using the rented space to smoke pot or if other laws were broken, the assistant city solicitor stressed.
Although it is legal for medical marijuana patients and recreational users in Portland and South Portland, where voters approved local ordinances, to possess and use the drug, it is still illegal under federal law.
Bangor police Sgt. Tim Cotton said the 13 Owls Club is the first of its kind he has heard about. Cotton said if a complaint about the club was reported to the department, “We would do the same thing we always do when responding to any complaints or questions. We would evaluate the information and the veracity of that information, investigate the claim to see if it were true, and at that point, we would act in accordance to the Constitution and federal and State statutes as well as City of Bangor Ordinances.”
The rented VIP smoking area features a small bar with two bar stools, a couple of comfortable-looking chairs, a small couch and a window that looks out over the roofs of the adjacent building.
The smoking lounge does not sell or provide medical marijuana, Ruhlin stressed, adding, “you can bring your own.”
“This isn’t exclusive to the Owls Club,” Ruhlin said. “It’s open to other medical marijuana clubs and groups.”
Ruhlin said he did not need any permitting by the city to rent the space out to medical marijuana clubs.
“I told (city officials) from the beginning that I was creating the space for a VIP room,” Ruhlin said.
Medical marijuana club members follow a strict set of rules to protect the identity of other club members and an established code of conduct, and all patients who use the rented space will need to provide Ruhlin with proof they can use medical marijuana.
The club members also wanted a place to take the drug where the business owner did not look down on the practice, Ruhlin said.
“We didn’t want to leave a place smelly behind us,” said Ruhlin. “That was really important. We just rent it by the hour like (to) everybody else. It’s $50 an hour, and if you wanted to rent a vaporizer, that would be (an extra) $20 an hour.”
A vaporizer uses high heat to change the medicinal parts of the marijuana plant into a mist that is inhalable, leaving the stripped plant behind and avoiding the carcinogens of smoking.
Members of the 13 Owls Club receive a daily email from Ruhlin to gauge interest in renting the space. He said a minimum of six club members are needed to reserve the room at the club’s expense. Club member dues of $50.40 annually, plus other fees, provide revenue for the rentals.
“If enough people sign up, we take the block (of time). If not, the block is open,” Ruhlin said, asking that details about the time slots not be released for privacy reasons.
The reason the 13 Owls Club is renting the VIP area is because “the stigma exists” against medical marijuana patients, said Ruhlin.
“They want to be able to use it whenever and wherever, and we tell them: We are the ambassadors for this movement,” Ruhlin said. “I don’t think we need to be smoking out in public. I think this is the future.”