March 31, 2013

End result of pot law has some surprises

Ambiguity surrounding medical marijuana can sometimes leave property owners and law enforcers in a kind of limbo.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The couple moved into the West End condo in 2011. It was their first home. It was the home they brought their newborn home to from the hospital last summer. It was perfect.

Only months later, they are debating whether to put their condo on the market, driven to the possibility of giving up their dream home by a downstairs neighbor who is using the building's shared basement to grow medical marijuana. The grow operation is legal under state law, but it has contributed to an inhospitable living environment, the couple says.

The couple's situation is the latest unintended consequence of Maine's still-evolving medical marijuana law. A Scarborough business owner earlier this year complained about a neighboring office tenant who was growing legally. A Fairfield woman who reapplied for a job with her former employer was not rehired after she disclosed that she was a medical marijuana user. The state's housing authority last fall banned medical marijuana use in Section 8 housing but then lifted the ban to study the issue further. A Falmouth doctor has offered discounts to college students for medical marijuana evaluations, but the state has no legal ability to stop him.

The problems are the result of decreased regulation and oversight by state officials, ambiguity about who has oversight authority and a hands-off approach by local law enforcement officers who must respect the privacy of medical marijuana growers and users.

The Portland couple say the skunky smell of marijuana lingers day and night. But by law, there is nothing they can do to stop it.

"Every state office we have turned to has referred us to someone else," said the woman, who agreed to talk only if her name and address were not used, out of concern for her family's safety. "No one seems to be able to deal with it. No one seems to have any answers. We have mostly been told that it is our problem to solve."

Instead of proposing legislation to address some of the loopholes that have emerged from a law that has little regulation, state lawmakers are focused on expanding the medical marijuana law.

One bill submitted this session would remove any restrictions on the permissible conditions under which a patient could be certified for medical marijuana. Another would decriminalize marijuana altogether, so that it could be taxed and regulated.

But according to the state's own licensing authority, the current system isn't regulated.

"In an effort to ensure privacy and confidentiality for patients and caregivers, (lawmakers) have eliminated the ability for the state to intervene in cultivation complaints," said Kenneth Albert, director of licensing for Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, the state agency that oversees medical marijuana. "We may need to propose some legislation to enhance our ability to regulate this."

Portland City Councilor David Marshall, a member of the Green Independent Party and a supporter of legalizing medical marijuana, said the West End couple's situation is unfortunate.

"It's really a civil matter and, honestly, I think they have a good case," Marshall said. "But there is nothing criminal taking place. And municipalities by law have no control over medical marijuana grow sites."

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Maine first passed a medical marijuana law in 1999 to allow patients with certain debilitating conditions to grow and possess a small amount of medical marijuana for therapeutic use.

The law expanded considerably after a 2009 referendum that allowed certified caregivers to grow marijuana for up to six patients, created a network of approved marijuana dispensaries and expanded the conditions under which a patient could be certified.

Before that law was fully implemented, lawmakers passed another bill in 2011 that eliminated any reporting requirements for medical marijuana patients and doctors who certify patients. The state has no way of knowing how many patients are being prescribed medical marijuana or for what purpose and no way of knowing which doctors are doing the prescribing.

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