Pubdate: Tue, 14 Mar 2000
Source: Bangor Daily News (ME)
Copyright: 2000, Bangor Daily News Inc.
Author: Michael O'D. Moore, Of the News Staff


AUGUSTA -- A bill debated Monday would put the Maine Drug Enforcement
Agency in the unusual role of distributing marijuana as medicine.

LD 2580, ''An Act to Provide Legal Access to Marijuana for Medical
Use,'' would allow eligible patients to register voluntarily with the
Department of Human Services in order to get as much as 4 ounces a
month of confiscated marijuana from the Maine DEA.

In November, Maine voters passed the Maine Medical Marijuana
Initiative, which legalized marijuana use by people with certain
illnesses. The problem is that there is no distribution system for
legal use of the illegal drug. An Attorney General's task force is
studying the issue.

On Monday, proponents said the bill would give the sick easier access
to marijuana without forcing them to grow plants or seek out drug
dealers. But opponents argued that the distribution system would put
state officials at odds with federal laws and risk millions in federal
grant money.

Testifying in favor of the bill was Robin Lambert, a Portland resident
who said he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992. He said he should have
easy access to marijuana to ease the side effects brought on by a
daily group of drugs he takes known as ''an AIDS cocktail.''

''Really, wouldn't you rather have me get my medicinal marijuana from
a legal source instead of making me scrounge on the black market for
it?'' Lambert asked the Health and Human Services Committee.

Elizabeth Beane, a social worker and campaign manager for Mainers for
Medical Rights, said the biggest question since the referendum has
been how to find marijuana for medical use.

''And most of these seriously ill and dying patients are bewildered
that the state, which possesses a ready supply, will not make it
available to them,'' Beane said.

She said the committee should do what is right for patients. ''These
patients should not have to be criminals to get the medicine they
need,'' she said. ''Nor should they have to go to criminals to get

But state officials said the proposed distribution system would make
them into criminals.

Providing up to a quarter pound of marijuana -- or about 100 large
marijuana cigarettes -- a month would ''require state employees to
commit a federal felony criminal offense as part of their job,'' said
James M. Cameron, assistant attorney general.

No other states have distributed marijuana, and if Maine did so it
would put about $19 million received annually from grants through the
Department of Justice in ''jeopardy,'' Cameron said. He explained that
Maine has to certify it is in compliance with federal laws in order to
be considered for Department of Justice funds.

But Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, who broke ranks with other
law enforcement officers to support the original bill, said he doesn't
believe such arguments and will support the distribution bill.

''I find that proposition highly unlikely, or, if true, shall we as a
sovereign state be held hostage by a federal government simply because
we intend to treat our sick and afflicted?'' Dion said.

He said a U.S. attorney had assured the Seattle Police department it
wouldn't be in any jeopardy observing that state's medical marijuana

''And if we choose to expand upon that law with a limited, legal
distribution system as proposed in this bill, federal funds will
continue to flow in support of law enforcement projects we all agree
upon,'' Dion said.

One question both sides agreed upon is that the confiscated marijuana
could be laced with other substances. Those for the bill said that the
state would be held harmless and that patients would accept the risks
just as they do when they buy marijuana on the street. Opponents said
it would put the state in the unwholesome position of distributing
unscreened drugs.

Although the Maine Medical Association opposed the original
referendum, Executive Director Gordon Smith testified neither for nor
against the latest proposal.

He said while the association remains opposed to the referendum
question, it isn't making the distribution proposal an issue. But, he
did say to committee members that they shouldn't be concerned that
patients can't get marijuana while an Attorney General's task force is
at work studying how to make the drug legally available. Marijuana is
readily available on the street, he said.

He said it remains an individual physician's choice about whether they
want to participate in providing marijuana for medical use. He said in
addition to about 10 physicians who supported the original bill
another handful have said they will participate.

''When you start with a base of 3,000 physicians, there will be a
handful that will participate in this,'' he said.

Don Christen of Madison, a major proponent of last fall's referendum,
said he was speaking neither for nor against the distribution

''This herb you've been discussing all morning isn't a drug, it's a
homeopathic herb,'' Christen said. ''You have to come up with a
state-run system that would eliminate the black market.''

The committee will next hold a work session on the bill at 3 p.m.
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MAP posted-by: Allan Wilkinson