After years of operating in the shadows, people who make marijuana-infused foods, tinctures and oils for qualified medical patients may finally get their own state license.
State lawmakers who oversee Maine’s medical marijuana program want to license and regulate the use of explosive chemicals or gases to extract concentrates from the cannabis plant.
Full of cannabidiol, the part of the cannabis plant with healing and therapeutic properties, the extracted resin can be made into edible foods or oils, topical salves or wax that can be vaped. Patients who don’t smoke rely on some form of extraction to get their medicine.
Maine allows qualified patients, caregivers and dispensaries to do their own extractions, but last year it adopted rules that would have outlawed the existing, complicated system that enables people to specialize in extraction. Backlash from caregivers, who rely on these specialists to offer their patients a wide range of non-smokable medicines, prompted the state to put the new rules on hold to give lawmakers a chance to write new law.
“If we do nothing, patient access will be horribly affected, jobs will be lost and small businesses will suffer,” Joel Pepin, owner and founder of SJR Labs in Auburn, said at a recent legislative hearing. “In any maturing industry, it’s very common to witness divisions of labor within the industry. That’s what us processors … are – a niche service provider offering a service that a single caregiver would never be able to provide for themselves.”
The processor niche would get the legitimization it is seeking under a bill endorsed this month by the Health and Human Services Committee. The bill provides a pathway for labs of all sizes to operate legally, but it would come at a cost – anyone who wants to extract using a potentially hazardous chemical or gas, such as butane, ether, carbon dioxide or propane, would have to get a manufacturing license and a safety and equipment certification from a state-licensed engineer.
The state would offer two different licenses, for those processing up to 40 pounds at one time and those that can process up to 200 pounds, either of which would cost no more than $300, said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the committee’s Senate chairman. The committee opted to keep the manufacturing license fee “relatively low” because it knew the cost of the hazardous material extraction certification could run much higher, at least at first, he said.
Just how much depends on whom you ask. Chris Witherell, a professional engineer who does extraction facility certifications in Colorado, California, Nevada, Washington and Oregon, says the lab should expect to pay one of the more than 600 engineers licensed to work in Maine about $2,500, plus travel, to certify its facility. It would be up to the equipment manufacturer, not the buyer, to pay an engineer to verify the safety and quality of the extraction equipment, he said.
But some caregivers worry the cost could be much higher, especially at the outset of the inspection process.
“Getting an engineer to sign off on your extraction setup is going to be too expensive for a lot of the small businesses,” said caregiver Dawson Julia, who operates East Coast CBDs in Unity. “I think it should be enough to get a municipal fire department or state fire marshal’s OK. That’s how they do it with autobody mechanics. They use oxygen gases that are very explosive and could take down a neighborhood. We should be treated the same.”
Those who participate in the medical marijuana program can continue to do their own non-hazardous extractions, using something like alcohol to draw out the desired concentrate, without a hazardous material license as long as they obtained the manufacturing license, Brakey said. An edibles maker who uses a carbon dioxide method of extraction would have to get a manufacturing license, hazardous material extraction certification and a commercial kitchen license.
The bill would allow processing labs in operation now to remain open while the state Department of Health and Human Services writes regulations and issues the first of the processing and hazardous material extraction licenses, Brakey said. This was done to prevent labs from having to close while the department worked, especially if it were to drag its heels for political reasons, Brakey said.
DHHS isn’t known for fast action, he said – the committee is still waiting for it to license medical marijuana testing labs, a measure signed into law two years ago.
“The whole point of this bill was to make sure the extraction labs in operation now can keep going, so long as they’re doing what they do safely,” Brakey said. “I’ve toured some of them, and I know the great lengths they’ve gone to in order to try to stay safe and to stay within the confines of a medical marijuana law that has not kept up with the growth of this industry. Don’t forget, this is an industry trying to help people. We should try to help them do that.”
The proposed bill doesn’t set any restrictions on who could get a license, or cap the total number of manufacturing licenses or hazardous-extraction certificates awarded, but it does allow the state to issue rules that would control who can run an extraction lab, the records that must be kept and required security measures. It does not reference any kind of licensing or certificate preference for residents, nor address employee qualifications or background checks.
But the final language of the bill endorsed March 7 is still being worked on by state analysts who write the proposed legislation. The committee will get the chance to review the final wording before sending it over first to the Senate, and then the House, for a vote. If approved by both houses, Brakey’s bill would then go to Gov. Paul LePage for action. LePage is a staunch opponent of marijuana, but Brakey remains hopeful the processor bill will succeed.
LePage has opposed efforts to launch recreational marijuana sales, and vetoed a regulatory bill that would have launched the adult-use market last November. He has also criticized the state’s medical marijuana program. LePage and Ricker Hamilton, whom LePage tapped to run DHHS, have criticized its lack of state oversight, administrative authority and resources.
If the processor bill fails, caregivers fear legitimate labs will close and caregivers and certified patients will be forced to go underground to get the medicine they need.
“Do you know what will thrive in the absence of legitimate labs? The black market,” Brett Messer, a caregiver for six years and owner of Brigid Farm in Saco with his wife, Stephanie, warned in legislative testimony. “Those will be the only labs left. I’m sure you’ve all seen the horror story of a fire or explosion in a residential neighborhood due to someone processing illegitimately with butane. Those will be the ones left processing if this bill is not passed.”
Brakey’s committee has also approved a medical marijuana reform bill that would provide those who agree to play by more restrictive rules the freedom to expand their businesses, agreeing to repeal the five-patient cap on registered caregivers and sell their medicine out of a shop, for example, but requiring unannounced inspections of their grow facilities. State analysts are crafting the final wording of that bill, too, before a final committee review sometime next month.