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Lawmakers Advance Bill That Would Make Over Medical Marijuana Program

AP Photo
Medical marijuana prescription vials at a medical marijuana dispensary in Venice, California

The Maine Legislature Wednesday moved closer to passing a sweeping overhaul of the state's medical marijuana program. The Health and Human Services Committee (HHS) voted to advance a bill that makes it easier for Mainers to qualify as medical marijuana patients, and allows caregivers to expand while accepting tighter regulations.

The bill does away with patient limits for registered caregivers, and allows caregivers and dispensaries to carve out a bigger sales market. Additionally, patients could possess up to eight pounds of harvested cannabis. The bill also makes it easier to obtain a medical marijuana patient card by removing current qualifying medical conditions such as epilepsy, cancer and Multiple Sclerosis. If a doctor believes a patient can benefit from cannabis for any ailment, he or she would be able to prescribe it.

The bill stopped short of eliminating a cap on the number of marijuana dispensaries. That wasn't a popular provision with many on the HHS committee. But Rep. Deb Sanderson, a Republican from Chelsea, said it would help chances of getting the bill through the full Legislature.

"I believe in expanding the program, but I don't believe scuttling all the work we have done because we didn't use some restraint. That's my concern," Sanderson said.

But fellow Republican Eric Brakey, a senator from Auburn, said while he supports much of the bill, he voted against it because it doesn’t allow for more dispensaries.

He said the eight existing dispensaries are already highly regulated, while the caregivers have not been.

"I have never heard, ever, anyone come to me and say, 'You know what, take the limits off of caregivers, caregivers are fine,” he said. “But those dispensaries are just too underregulated. We can't have them.' I have never heard that. I've only heard the exact opposite of that.”

The committee settled on allowing six new dispensary licenses, a cap that will sunset in three years.

The committee's vote marks the culmination of a tedious and heavily lobbied drafting process, seemingly made more urgent by the uncertainty facing a separate bill that sets up Maine's recreational marijuana program.

And over the past several months, cannabis industry groups frustrated by the stalled recreational market, have shifted their focus to the medical marijuana overhaul.

The language of the bill needs to be finalized before it moves to the full Legislature for floor votes.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.