Gov. Paul LePage has agreed to delay implementation of controversial new medical marijuana rules.
The rules, scheduled to go into effect Thursday, would have allowed surprise inspection of caregiver operations and closed regulatory loopholes that permitted marijuana processors to make and sell infused edibles, tinctures and lotions. But LePage agreed to put the new rules on hold until May so a legislative committee that oversees the medical marijuana program can draft a new law to implement program reforms.
“While I believe strongly that the medical marijuana program needs improved and increased regulation, waiting until May to ensure we do not create unnecessary confusion and complication is a reasonable approach,” LePage said in a letter sent Wednesday to Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea.
Sanderson, a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, had asked LePage to delay implementation. The committee had endorsed a bill to put the new rules on hold, but it would not have made it to the governor’s desk in time to delay implementation. The committee expects to propose legislation this session that would address many issues raised by the administration, Sanderson said.
“The program needs greater oversight,” she said. “My request was not a way to avoid more regulation. I just want to do it in a thorough, thoughtful way.”
There haven’t been any significant changes to the medical cannabis program since 2011, Sanderson said.
Implementing new rules now, only to have them change a couple of months later, would waste the time of the state Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the medical marijuana program, Sanderson said. It also would be confusing and potentially dangerous for the medical marijuana community, whose state licenses and personal freedoms depend on strict compliance with the program rules and regulations.
“I think it’s prudent to see what’s in the new rules, parse out what exactly the department was going for as far as oversight and bring industry standards to everyone, and that includes caregivers,” Sanderson said. “That is not something we can just do. We have to hear from the department, the community. It would be complicated enough on its own, but we also have to look for ways to dovetail some of the policy we are working on with what is going on with adult-use marijuana.”
Sanderson said the legislative committee will look for ways to consolidate certain parts of the medical program with the one for sales of adult-use, or recreational, marijuana, which was approved by voters in 2016 but has been delayed as the regulatory framework is worked out. LePage wants to consolidate the two programs. Sanderson said there may be certain areas that can be combined, such as regulatory control, oversight, compliance, licensing, packaging, labeling and testing.
DHHS finalized the caregiver rules last year, but many in the community remained unclear on their impact, or how the state might enforce them, until recently.
Some of the owners of the labs that test and do the extraction work for Maine’s caregiver community – the state’s eight licensed medical marijuana dispensaries test and perform extractions in-house now – had told caregivers they planned to shut down when the new rules went into effect Thursday to avoid possible regulatory penalties or referrals to law enforcement. No Maine lab owners were willing to discuss their business plans with the Portland Press Herald, but several had confirmed closure plans off the record.
Both DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton and LePage think the medical marijuana program is flawed. On Jan. 12, Hamilton sent a letter to the legislative committee saying it lacks enough oversight, administrative authority and resources, and that bills pending before the committee only begin to “scratch the surface of needed reform.” LePage cited the significant growth of the caregiver network when he vetoed the adult-use marijuana bill last year, although new data shows the industry is shrinking.
In his letter to Sanderson, LePage urged the committee to make sure that its work to reform the medical program happens “in concert” with recreational deliberations.
“A concurrent medical program overseen by a different agency, with weaker regulation and disparate tax rates, will undermine both the medical and recreational programs,” LePage wrote. “In order to ensure safe, effective regulation, the two programs must be considered together.”