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As Maine's Recreational Pot Law Stalls, Lawmakers Seek To Revamp Medical Marijuana Program

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press/file
In this Nov. 21, 2014, file photo, medical marijuana is rolled into a joint in Belfast, Maine.

Watching the effort to create Maine's recreational marijuana market has been a lot like observing a rocket take off from Cape Canaveral — lots of anticipation, waiting, and more than a few scrubbed launches.

But in Augusta there's a quieter movement afoot that could significantly affect hundreds of Mainers in the state's medical marijuana industry. It comes at a time when the recreational law appears to be taking a bite out of medical pot sales.

Alysia Melnick helped lead the 2016 campaign to legalize adult-use marijuana, and she’s kept a close eye on the Legislature’s tortured efforts to get the market up and running.

But lately she's been spending a lot of time in the Health and Human Services Committee, where lawmakers are working to overhaul the medical cannabis program.

"There's a lot of medical marijuana cultivators who have their eye on the adult-use program," Melnick says. "And as they've seen some things stall here, more focus has been put on the medical side."

Melnick now lobbies for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a trade organization that also represents patients.

Maine's medical cannabis industry exploded between 2014 and 2015, with taxable sales topping off at nearly $25 million.

But last year the number of patients dropped by more than 18 percent and taxable sales fell when it became legal for Mainers to cultivate and possess their own cannabis.

And now lawmakers are considering changes to the medical cannabis law that Melnick says could benefit caregivers by creating a tiered system that would allow them to grow more plants and serve more patients. "So, steps that would allow caregivers to truly both be regulated like - and the enjoy the benefits of - being a small business."

Republican state Sen. Eric Brakey, of Auburn, says the proposals would also ensure that those who are currently exploiting gray areas in the existing medical-cannabis law are better regulated.

"Many caregivers have really found loopholes in the law to kind of stretch their business and do things that were not initially envisioned," Brakey says.

The new regulation would include mandatory testing and labeling for caregivers aspiring for commercial-sized growth, and inspections for smaller ones.

"I think it's time that everyone plays by the same set of rules, or at least very similar set of rules," says Dan Walker.  Walker is a lobbyist representing Wellness Connection of Maine, which runs four of the eight cannabis dispensaries in the state.

His client has been clamoring for more oversight of caregivers, some of whom might be carving into Wellness Connection's market share without the same regulatory burden.

"There's lots of sales going on out there," Walker says. "There are caregiver stores opening up in people's communities and they don't have the level of regulation that the dispensaries do."

Republican state Rep. Deb Sanderson, of Chelsea, says an overhaul of the medical program hasn't happened since the Legislature enacted a bill she proposed in 2012.

Sanderson says revamping the medical program could also mean alignment with the recreational industry in certain aspects. "There are areas of commonality, you know like the labeling, the testing, the packaging. Those are all areas that apply to both. You could also have consolidation at the top of oversight, regulatory control, inspections."

Some caregivers see the changes as a way to grow their businesses and position them for entry into the adult-use market. Others are nervous that an alignment with the adult-use program could mean the end of Maine medical cannabis altogether.

Sanderson says it's important that the medical program be protected because it has a distinctly different objective than the adult-use market.

"There's a lot of work being done that takes away the euphoric effect," she says. "They want the pain management, they want the anti-anxiety, they want the anti-seizure properties."

At the same time, Sen. Brakey's committee will consider changing - or eliminating - the list of debilitating conditions that currently qualify for medical treatment.

That means obtaining a patient card for medical cannabis may no longer require having cancer, glaucoma or ALS, as it does now.

"What we're looking at transitioning to is, potentially, just if a doctor feels that it is medically helpful for their patient - for whatever condition that patient is suffering with - the doctor should be able to make that recommendation," Brakey says.

Brakey is also proposing doing away with the restriction that patients can only get cannabis from one caregiver or dispensary. "You know, if you need a pharmaceutical, you don't have one CVS that you're allowed to go to."

It's no coincidence that such proposals are gaining traction at a time when many predict that the adult-use market is at least a year - or longer - from launching.

There is a lot of uncertainty about a federal crackdown on recreational pot, but Congress continues to reauthorize a law that protects medical patients and caregivers.

And just last week, the governor agreed to delay rules that would impose new restrictions on caregivers. That will give lawmakers more time to overhaul a medical program that legal cannabis entrepreneurs hope will provide a payoff - at least while the recreational program remains stalled.

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