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Maine Medical Marijuana Advocates Question New Online Certification Process

The state of Maine is creating a new online process for certifying medical marijuana patients under the Medical Marijuana Program.

The idea is to strengthen program integrity and reduce fraud. But some are concerned that the new process puts patient privacy at risk.

Four years after the state's medical marijuana program went into effect, state officials still don't know exactly how many patients are enrolled in the program. That's because registration with the state is voluntary.

Lawmakers recently approved legislation to try to get a handle on those numbers. And beginning Jan. 5, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will require medical providers to certify patients through an online portal and then print out information for patient records.

"We're providing them with the paper that they'll actually print on. So, they'll enter the information. It's a very easy process," says Kenneth Albert, the director for the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services who oversees the Medical Marijuana Program.

He says the new process, endorsed by the Maine Medical Association, is designed to remove the state from the doctor-patient relationship, as well as cut down on fraud, "because obviously providers don't want any tampering or use of their names on forms not generated by them."

Providers can print patient certifications in the privacy of their own offices on specialized paper that includes a state seal and cannot be scanned or photocopied. Providers keep one part for their records. Patients can also use accompanying semi-laminated cards to demonstrate that they are qualified for the program.

Paul McCarrier, a consultant and former legislative advocate for the Maine Caregivers Association, is skeptical about the purpose.

"We're very concerned that the department is moving forward with this measure," McCarrier says. "We're primarily concerned about the fact that they will be including patients' name, date of birth and street address in this database."

McCarrier says he understands why DHHS wants to know how many patients there are around the state, and where they are, for planning purposes. But he says it's unnecessary to submit patients' personal information online. He points out that an earlier patient database was discontinued after Maine lawmakers passed a bill to protect patient privacy by making registration in the program voluntary.

Hillary Lister, the director of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, says she's hearing from a lot of people who say they won't renew their certifications if there's a chance their names will wind up in a government database for using what is still an illegal substance.

"A lot of people - either they work for the state or they work for a company that has government contracts, and they're afraid that if their name gets on this sort of database that it won't be secure, that it could be used in a federal investigation," Lister says.

Albert says the online portal is not a database. He says the only information that will be retrieved from the electronic portal is the patient's zip code and whether that patient is over age 18.

"There's no personal identifiable data that will be captured or stored anywhere in this process," Albert says. "We've been very clear on this with caregivers and patients. But despite that assertion there are some people who still believe that the state of Maine has an interest in capturing this data, and we just simply don't. There's no other way to say it."

Hillary Lister of the Caregivers Association says her organization is considering a possible challenge to the new process, as well as legislation in the coming session to strengthen patient privacy protections.