By John Richardson
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 Legislature.
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 certifications.
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 Union.
“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.”