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Voters to decide on medical marijuana dispensaries

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Voters to decide on medical marijuana dispensaries

Medical marijuana is already legal in Maine, but for patients with recommendations from their doctor allowing its use, growing their own is the only legal way to supply themselves.

Question 5 on the Nov. 3 ballot would legalize nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries, which would be regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

According the proposal, DHHS would issue "registry identification cards" to qualified patients and their "designated primary caregivers." The dispensaries would also have to register with the state, and DHHS would be expected to establish application and renewal fees sufficient to pay for oversight and regulation. The initial registration fee would be $5,000, according to the measure.

Though marijuana is illegal under federal law, 14 states have legalized it for patients and others, including California and Colorado, have also legalized dispensaries similar to those proposed in Maine.

Many patients who use marijuana medicinally say it effectively relieves pain and doesn't have the negative side effects found with prescription narcotics.

In February, President Barack Obama said federal officials would stop raiding dispensaries of medical marijuana in states that have authorized them.

Johnathan Leavitt, who heads the Lewiston-based group Maine Citizens for Patients Rights, said this proposal will merely make the medicinal marijuana law already approved by Mainers "workable."

"That law was not particularly well-written so it left a lot of ambiguities and confusion," he said.

Though qualified patients are allowed to grow their own plants now, Leavitt said that's not always possible for people who are going through cancer treatments or are HIV positive considering the amount of time, attention and space needed.

The question has no formal opposition campaigning against it, but recently the Maine Prosecutors Association came out against it. The Baldacci administration is also opposing the measure, according to spokesman David Farmer.

Guy Cousins, director of DHHS' Office of Substance Abuse, and Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, testified against the measure at the legislative public hearing in April.

"This will allow storefront marijuana businesses to possess, cultivate and sell marijuana for medical purposes under the appearance that it is regulated similar to the controlled substances that are dispensed at a pharmacy," McKinney said in his testimony. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

McKinney pointed to California communities with dispensaries that have seen "negative and harmful secondary effects."

He said information from the California Police Chiefs Association lists several consequences of the establishment of the dispensaries, including "marijuana driving under the influence" by people who obtained the drug at a dispensary, patients selling to nonpatients and cases of robbery outside the dispensaries.

But Leavitt said the Maine proposal provides more regulation compared to the California law.

"There's much more oversight in this one, this is going to be a pretty regulated system for distribution; California's tends to be a little bit unregulated," he said.

Maine's proposal prohibits dispensaries from being established within 500 feet of public or private schools, and convicted felons will not be allowed to work at them. The measure also limits the number of plants that can be cultivated, based on the number of patients it is serving and also how many ounces patients can possess at any one time. Local municipalities would also be able to further limit or regulate such dispensaries.

More specific regulations would be determined by DHHS in the rule-making process, Leavitt said.

Asked if he was concerned that regulation of the dispensaries would be left in the hands of those opposed to the proposal, Leavitt said he is going to have "strong expectations" if the question is approved by Maine voters.

"The governor and the DHHS folks, these folks have all been participants in propping up drug policy that's destroying lives and denying patients the right of medicine, so they've got a lot to be accountable for," he said. "I hope they're able to live with themselves."

Rebekah Metzler is a staff writer at the Sun Journal in Lewiston. She can be reached at rmetzler@sunjournal.com