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Major Overhaul To Medical Marijuana Program Might Open The Door For More Patients

Steven Senne
AP Photo
n this Wednesday, July 29, 2015 photo Kenney LaFauci, of Providence, R.I., head of cultivation at the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center, inspects marijuana plants in a growing room at the center, in Providence, R.I.

Late Tuesday night, lawmakers agreed on a bill that will dramatically overhaul the state's medical marijuana program.If it becomes law, the proposal is expected to have a significant impact on the dozens of small businesses operating as caregivers, opening the door for more patients in exchange for stricter state oversight.

Homegrown Health Care of Maine might be easy to miss for drivers barreling down Route 202 just outside of Augusta, but it's literally a one-stop shop for people who qualify as patients — or who want to — under the state's medical marijuana program.

Owner Catherine Lewis begins her tour in a kitchen that doubles as a demonstration area for the classes and production of cannabis-infused oils and edibles.

“We can teach patients and caregivers how to make different tinctures and oils and salves. Terri's making edibles right now,” she says.

She then enters a small room where she consults patients, some of whom are referred to the shop by the doctor's office right across the hallway.

Inside is an assortment of cannabis flower and tinctures, even time-release patches that dispense cannabidoil, THC or both.

"It's just one little case of medicine,” says Lewis. “These are the different flowers that we have. We have the sativas, indicas, hybrids and the high CBD strains ..."

There's a chess board out in the waiting area. Marijuana leaves represent the pawns. It's not quite clear which is the queen or the king, the pipe or the hooka, but late Tuesday night, Lewis and roughly 3,000 other registered caregivers moved one step closer to a checkmate of sorts for their patients and businesses.

The vote brings Maine to the brink of overhauling Maine's medical marijuana program, and it could transform its regulations to one that treats caregivers, like Lewis, less like shady elixir-peddlers and more like legitimate purveyors of medicine.

Lewis and her husband have operated the shop since 2011, a couple of years after the state allowed medical cannabis shops like this.

But Lewis, who is also head of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, says the state hasn't treated medical cannabis businesses like others.

"We've been businesses and held accountable to paying taxes since 2010 without the business benefit,” she says.

For example, current state law prohibits patients from visiting more than one caregiver. And caregivers can't have more than one employee, a rule that would change under the overhaul bill now awaiting action by Gov. LePage.

"A lot of the caregivers started off as patients themselves, so they have limitations," Lewis said.

And Lewis would know. Her husband Glenn is a caregiver who also happens to be battling cancer.

The couple are both registered caregivers, yet it was once illegal for them to grow cannabis in their home unless a locked door separated their plants. Lewis and other caregivers have been trying to change those and other restrictions over the past several years.

They've had some success, but it wasn't until this year that a major overhaul picked up momentum. It came amid uncertainty and strong legislative opposition to the recreational marijuana law that voters passed in 2016.

"What are we doing here?... I am just appalled at how this is going down. I am voting no for every marijuana piece here," said Sen. Scott Cyrway, a Republican from Benton.

Cyrway is known as one of the more vociferous opponents to legal marijuana, once asserting in a floor speech that it increases risk of Schizophrenia and minor heart attacks. Cyrway even sponsored a bill that would ask voters if they want to repeal the 2016 legalization law.

"We're really in trouble. We need to take another look for safety, public health," Cyrway said during a floor speech Tuesday.

Cyrway's repeal bill failed in the House and Senate on Tuesday, the same day that the medical overhaul passed. The outcomes of the two bills might seem to signal a natural progression of attitudes toward marijuana as states like Maine move toward legalization.

But others might see a contrast in attitudes toward the recreational and medical programs.

The Legislature's rewrite of the recreational law is an inherently conservative proposal with strict limits on packaging, retail shops, tracking and no municipal revenue sharing to expedite growth of the industry.

On the other hand, the medical overhaul eliminates caps on the number of patients caregivers like Lewis can treat.

In addition, prospective patients no longer have to prove that they have one of a handful of qualifying conditions to get a medical cannabis card. If a doctor thinks cannabis can help an ailment, they can prescribe it.

Some might see those changes as permissive, even progressive. But not Lewis.

"They're really not. When you look at it, everything that we're getting, we're going to have so much greater oversight," she said.

That increased scrutiny comes in the form of unannounced state inspections and tracking cannabis from seed to sale.

Gov. LePage said last year that more oversight is needed if the medical program is going to continue.

Caregivers like Lewis now hope that the bill on LePage's desk meets that standard.

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