ME: State Health Department Chief Says Medical Marijuana Program Is Lacking

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Photo Credit: Nicholas Belton

The head of the state department that oversees Maine’s medical marijuana program believes it lacks sufficient oversight, administrative authority and resources.

Ricker Hamilton, who worked at the Department of Health and Human Services for decades before being sworn in to lead it in November, spelled out his concerns in a letter this week to the Legislature, which is considering seven different medical marijuana bills this session. The bills cover a wide spectrum of possible reforms, from a bill that would allow cannabis to be used to treat opioid addiction to temporarily banning the awarding of any more caregiver licenses.

“While the bills before you are well intentioned, they just begin to scratch the surface of needed reform in the program,” Hamilton wrote.

Hamilton urged the committee to consider the medical program in concert with the recreational program that another legislative committee is trying to launch. He said that the creation of a separate adult-use program, with its own tax rate and a different regulatory structure, will only exacerbate the problems in the medical program. He has called on the health and adult-use marijuana committees to work together to create consistency in the programs.

The letter sent a shiver through the medical marijuana community, which has steadfastly opposed any efforts to combine the two programs, arguing their industry is about providing medical relief to sick people, and that regulations governing it should be relaxed and taxes lowered, while adult-use provides users with a recreational outlet like alcohol, and should be taxed and regulated in a similar way.

While caregivers and patients asked lawmakers to keep their program under DHHS jurisdiction, Hamilton suggested in his letter to lawmakers that the medical program may not fit into the department’s mission to promote the health and safety of Mainers. He noted the state is battling a drug use epidemic that claimed over 300 lives in 2016. It has spent a lot of time and resources to combat that epidemic, Hamilton said. Marijuana remains classified in the same category as those drugs, he noted.

“Please consider the potentially dire unintended consequences of normalizing the use of this Schedule 1 drug,” Hamilton wrote.

Many of his concerns echo those raised by Gov. Paul LePage when he vetoed the Legislature’s adult-use bill last year. In the past, he has described marijuana as deadly and spoke out against its legalization for recreational use in the weeks leading up to the successful citizens referendum in 2016. However, in a re-election debate, LePage had previously said he would support legalization if voters approved it at referendum.

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