Pubdate: Sat, 14 May 2011
Source: Portland Press Herald (ME)
Copyright: 2011 MaineToday Media, Inc.
Author: John Richardson
Bookmark: (Maine)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - U.S.)


An amended Maine bill has bipartisan support, but federal officials
have yet to weigh in.

Mainers who use marijuana to ease symptoms of chronic medical
conditions would no longer have to register with the state under a
proposal that appears likely to be approved by the

The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee voted
unanimously this week in favor of an amended version of L.D. 1296,
which sought to deregulate Maine's medical marijuana program and
protect the privacy of patients.

No vote has been scheduled in the House or Senate, but the bipartisan
support -- and the blessing of the LePage administration -- means the
bill is almost certain to pass.

There is one potential hitch. The U.S. Attorney's Office is reviewing
the bill, and the state's existing rules, and is expected to add its
input before a final vote.

Marijuana use, whether medicinal or not, remains a federal crime.
While the U.S. Department of Justice has historically not interfered
with state-sanctioned medical uses of the drug, U.S. attorneys have
recently objected to the expansion of medical marijuana programs in
other states, including Rhode Island.

Maine's amended bill doesn't include everything that medical marijuana
advocates wanted, but it would provide the kind of access and privacy
protections that voters endorsed in 2009, said the bill's sponsor,
Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea.

"It really affords patient privacy," Sanderson said Friday. "The
registration becomes voluntary and the patient's diagnosis remains
with the doctor."

Under the current law and rules, any patient who wants to use
marijuana legally must pay $100 and provide the state with a doctor's
recommendation listing AIDS, cancer, glaucoma or some other qualifying
medical condition. State-issued registration cards must be shown to
police or to medical marijuana dispensaries to prove that patients are
using or seeking the drug legally.

Although the state has registered more than 1,000 patients, activists
argued that many more are reluctant to register because they fear that
their names and medical information will be revealed to others,
especially to federal drug agents.

The pending bill would make registration, and the annual fee, optional
for patients. A patient who doesn't want to register and receive a
state medical marijuana card would instead have to show a doctor's
certification that they are a qualified user.

Also, doctors would no longer be required to reveal patients' specific
medical conditions to the state or list their diagnoses on the

Caregivers who grow medical marijuana for members of their families
would no longer be required to register under the bill. But caregivers
who grow marijuana for patients who are not related to them would
still have to register and pay the existing $300-a-year fee.

There is a growing number of small-scale commercial caregivers, and
each is allowed to supply as many as five patients.

Maine's eight large-scale dispensaries would continue to register and
pay their $15,000 annual fees.

The amended bill addresses privacy problems in the current law, said
Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel with the Maine Civil Liberties

"The (Department of Health and Human Services) is going to purge all
specific medical information about patients," she said. "Any time you
are basically coercing people to put their private medical information
on a statewide database, then patients are at risk of having their
privacy violated."

Parts of the original bill that raised the strongest objections from
DHHS were dropped.

Activists wanted to allow physicians to recommend marijuana use for
any patients they felt would benefit from the drug, regardless of the
underlying conditions. The amended bill says marijuana could be
recommended only to patients who have qualifying conditions.

The bill would create a new, streamlined process for adding conditions
to that list. Doctors or patients would be able to petition DHHS,
which could hold public hearings and adopt rules to expand the list.

As lawmakers and others negotiated the compromise during the past few
weeks, U.S. attorneys in other states were objecting to expanding
access to medical marijuana.

The U.S. attorney in Rhode Island, for example, wrote to Gov. Lincoln
Chafee in late April that a state law establishing dispensaries
conflicts with federal law, and that large-scale growing and selling
of the drug could lead to civil and legal action.

That led the Maine Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee
to ask Maine's U.S. attorney, Thomas Delahanty, for his opinion on the
pending bill.

Donald Clark, an assistant U.S. attorney, provided a statement from
Delahanty saying the office is reviewing the proposal and existing
state law and plans to respond to the committee.

"This will be viewed in light of the fact that ... much of the
activity taking place under Maine's Medical Marijuana Act remains
illegal under federal law," Clark said.

Sanderson said she spoke with Delahanty about the conflict. While she
doesn't expect the U.S. attorney to endorse Maine's law, she doesn't
expect the federal government to crack down on medical use of the drug
in Maine.

"They just want to make sure that that's what it really is being used
for," she said. "In the state of Maine, we've got some pretty clear
guidelines. Unless we do some sort of huge diversion from the track we
are on, which will greatly deregulate (marijuana use), I think we'll
continue to be OK."  
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