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Farmington bust reignites debate for tighter rules in Maine medical cannabis program

James MacWilliams
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2017, file photo, James MacWilliams prunes a marijuana plant that he is growing indoors in Portland, Maine. New York has failed in recent years to pass marijuana legalization, but a state senator said lawmakers have reached an agreement to legalize marijuana sales to adults over the age of 21.

A sprawling conspiracy case against multiple defendants in the Farmington-area loomed large Tuesday during a meeting of the state's marijuana advisory committee. The case is being pursued by the state's U.S. Attorney's Office, but it's also reigniting tensions among stakeholders in Maine’s medical cannabis program.

The criminal case involves a dozen defendants, including current and former law enforcement officials and a Franklin County assistant district attorney, who are alleged to have played some role in what the U.S. Attorney's Office says was a $13 million operation that used Maine's medical marijuana program to grow and sell cannabis in the illicit market, sometimes out of state.

While that case will be adjudicated in federal court, its alleged exploitation of Maine's medical cannabis law is prompting some to advocate for stricter regulations and more oversight by the state Office of Marijuana Policy, or OMP.

That debate came into sharp focus during Tuesday's meeting of the Marijuana Advisory Commission, after Assistant Attorney General John Risler asked OMP director Erik Gundersen if his office had the resources to crack down on the illicit cannabis market.

"Uh, no. No," Gundersen said.

Gundersen noted that OMP is regulatory agency responsible for the oversight of licensees in either the medical or recreational programs.

"When we get reports of, come across, see, follow-up on what is obvious, illicit activity, which is quite frequent, that's a direct handoff to local law enforcement and it's really a coin flip if there's any type of follow-up with the Office of Marijuana Policy," he said.

And enforcement of illicit marijuana operations is a mixed bag.

The state decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana back in 1976 and has become more permissive ever since. Medical cannabis has been allowed since 2009 and was expanded to eliminate pre-existing conditions for patients in 2018.

In between, voters in 2016 approved recreational possession and use for adults.

And Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney says his agency is now devoting much of its energy toward cracking down on more dangerous substances.

"We are focused on the biggest threats that we have right now that is killing Maine citizens," he said. "And frankly, that is fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine."

For many on the marijuana advisory commission, that should be the MDEA's current focus.

But there are some who worry that the Farmington bust represents a larger problem: that Maine's medical and recreational programs are competing with an illicit market that continues to thrive

"If illicit marijuana can easily get into the program, that means that the folks who are trying to do it right, who are registered, who are farmers just producing the product, are competing against the illicit market," said Drummond Woodsum attorney Hannah King, who advises municipalities, medical dispensaries, entrepreneurs, and investors on recreational and medical cannabis regulations.

King says illicit operations are undercutting legal purveyors and growers, and subverting one of the stated goals of legal cannabis: to stamp out the illegal market.

King and others have pushed for what's known as track and trace, a requirement that recreational retailers and growers electronically track cannabis products across their supply chains, to be extended to the medical program.

The state proposed that very change last year, but it met widespread opposition from smaller caregivers who worried that it would be too burdensome and could put them out of business.

Josh Quint, who works for the Biddeford medical dispensary Canuvo, acknowledges that track and trace is contentious, but says its absence has created pathways to exploit Maine's medical marijuana program.

"Some people are just on the wrong side of the line and they figure that out and work their way back and that's great. And some of the people see an open field and they run with it for a while and that's the example of Farmington," he said.

But Alysia Melnick, who represents the roughly 3,000 members of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, says the state already has the tools to keep medical operations in compliance, including 12 field investigators.

Track and trace, she says, is not necessarily a panacea.

"If you look at a state like California, which has robust track and trace, they still have huge grey and black markets and lots of illicit activity," she said.

The debate is sure to intensify when state lawmakers return to the State House in January.

The marijuana advisory panel is expected to make recommendations to the cannabis program before then.