Panel smokes out pot plan details

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AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on Tuesday set outlines for age, medical conditions and municipal limitations on use and access to medical marijuana dispensaries.

Mainers voted last fall to approve a citizen initiative allowing dispensaries; the Health and Human Services Committee is working to fine-tune the proposal for implementation.

State Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, chairman of the committee, laid out guidelines for Tuesday’s discussion.

“I would like to stay as close to the law as passed by the people with 70 percent of the vote, and stay away from anything that makes this look like a criminal activity,” he said. “We can’t be perfect and I think there will be plenty of opportunity in the next year or two or three to get it right.”

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A task force of stakeholders met several times since last fall’s passage of the measure to make recommendations that would ease implementation of the legislation, but they remained divided on several key issues. The proposal is now in the hands of lawmakers who must pass it before it can take effect.

During preliminary committee votes, a majority of members agreed to ban medical marijuana use for patients 12 years old or younger, but rejected a task force recommendation that children ages 13 to 17 go before a panel for approval. The committee decided to treat them like any other patient, in that if their doctor approves the use, they are allowed.

The committee also decided to stick with the original initiative’s list of eligible diseases, which include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease and agitation of Alzheimer’s, among others, but to exclude post traumatic stress disorder, which had been considered but rejected by the task force.

A panel of 10, including doctors and patients, would be established to recommend adding more medical conditions, according to the proposal.

Municipalities would not have the right to ban dispensaries but would be allowed to use “reasonable” zoning and ordinances to regulate them, according to the legislation, and agreed upon by the committee.

Yet to be determined is whether to allow dispensaries to do their own growing or to require them to buy marijuana from licensed growers. Lawmakers also discussed but did not vote on whether to limit the number of growers, if the latter were the case.

“We need to start slow,” said state Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland. “I really would hate for us to leave the complete barn door open. I just don’t see there’s any way to corral and bring it back. We can always expand, but really, to start contracting is very, very difficult.”

Strang Burgess, a cancer survivor, said she supports the intent of the initiative but wants lawmakers to be cautious as they implement a new system.

“We all have a tremendous amount to learn; we want to do this correctly,” she said. “We are supportive of what the Maine citizens want. We’re going to make this available. I don’t think the Maine citizens want one of these on every street corner, either.”

Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with overseeing the dispensaries, said she was worried about monitoring an unknown number of dispensaries and with lawmakers being ambiguous about the details.

“I am anxious about how many of these we’re going to have to oversee,” Harvey said. “We have no idea how many there will be. What I don’t want to set the department up to be is to have flawed rules and then be the only entity that gets nailed with having done this incorrectly.”

She said DHHS could address many of the details in rules. “But in leaving it open, you’re leaving it to us. We’ll do the best we can, looking at models of other states. We will apply rules that allow us to both meet the intent of the law and to monitor and oversee this.”

The dispensary system would be self-sustaining according to the initiative, with yet-to-be-determined registration fees paid by patients and caregivers. A $5,000 dispensary registration fee was written into the law, though it was not specified whether that would be an annual cost, another detail legislators have yet to work out.

Medical marijuana use has been legal in Maine since passage of a 1999 initiative, but there has been no legal means to obtain it. Marijuana remains illegal federally, but the Obama administration announced last year it would not pursue prosecutions in states where medical use is legal.

The committee is scheduled to take up the measure again on Wednesday.

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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