Maine Lawmakers Pass Bill To Increase Patient Access To Medical Marijuana

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Maine lawmakers have approved a bill to reform the state’s medical marijuana program, sending the second major cannabis bill to Gov. Paul LePage’s desk in as many days.

The Senate voted 25-10 in favor of a bill that was approved by the House with ease on Friday, without debate or even a roll call. LePage now has 10 days to decide if he will sign it, veto it or let it become law without a signature.

The bill will expand the number of people who can qualify for medical marijuana cards, boost the number of state-licensed dispensaries and allow caregivers to see more patients, hire more workers and run storefront operations without legal reprisal. It is a committee bill – written by the members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee – that has been more than two years in the making, delayed while lawmakers waited to see what would happen to the recreational marijuana bill. After waiting for 18 months, the committee decided it had to push through an omnibus bill that would address a range of problems with the program, loosening some overly restrictive rules and adding new ones to close legal loopholes.

The committee wrote the bill expecting a veto, but thinks legislative support for the program runs deep enough to override it, said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the committee’s Senate chairman. There was some pushback on the Senate floor on Wednesday, with Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, arguing that marijuana that is sold between providers to help those who suffer from crop failures continue to serve their patients should be taxed.

The bill would increase patient access to medical marijuana by allowing medical providers to certify an adult patient for any medical reason, eliminating an existing list of qualifying conditions that only allowed certification for people suffering from things like cancer, Crohn’s disease or Alzheimer’s. It would allow parents to give marijuana to children with epilepsy, cancer or intellectual or developmental disabilities after just one doctor recommendation. Now they must get two.

The bill also would give registered caregivers the ability to use their 30-plant operation to serve as many patients as their harvest allows, hire more workers and sell out of storefronts without the threat of legal action. Caregivers currently are bound by a limit of five patients per plant.

The number of state dispensary licenses would increase from eight to 14, and dispensaries could shed their nonprofit status to better compete in the marketplace.

But with those extra freedoms would come extra responsibilities. The bill requires caregivers to submit to unannounced inspections of their grows, lets the towns regulate where caregivers can operate cultivation facilities and requires registered caregivers and dispensaries to install a seed-to-sale tracking system. It also requires caregivers who operate storefronts to install the same security measures as those used by dispensaries.

About 42,000 Mainers have a doctor’s OK to use medical marijuana to treat a qualifying condition. That number has fallen almost 18 percent since Maine legalized adult-use cannabis, even though it has yet to license any recreational cultivation and retail facilities. Mainers spent $24.5 million in the state’s eight licensed dispensaries last year. Caregivers who can sell marijuana to up to five patients at any one time probably sold as much medicine to their patients, according to leaders of the state’s 3,000 caregiver network.