Saturday, March 8, 2014
PORTLAND -- Maine is about to become one of the first states to regulate the distribution of medical marijuana, and about 250 patients, caregivers and prospective suppliers gathered here Saturday to learn how the new system will work.
Many who attended the Maine Medical Cannabis Conference at the University of Southern Maine have been using the drug legally for as long as 10 years to treat chronic pain, nausea, glaucoma and a variety of other medical conditions. But a law passed by voters last fall and set to take effect in January requires all users to register and sets up a network of eight dispensaries that will be licensed to grow and sell marijuana around the state.
"It's one thing to say medical marijuana is legal for patients, but it's another to make it available to them," said Jill Harris, managing director of public policy at the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that helped sponsor the conference. "This is sort of new territory that we're in here in Maine."
While 14 states now allow the use of medical marijuana, only New Mexico has an established state-regulated distribution system. Maine and Rhode Island are now in the midst of setting up their own access networks and several other states are planning to follow.
Meanwhile, marijuana use remains a federal crime, whether for medical use or not. The Obama Administration has made clear it does not plan to crack down on state-regulated medical use of the drug, a pledge that has added momentum to legalization efforts.
Some elements of Maine's new law continue to draw criticism, including the requirement that all users register on a state database so police will know they are using the drug legally. State officials assured patients Saturday they would keep medical information confidential and not share the list with federal drug authorities.
And while Maine will soon have a supply network, patients said it is still difficult to find doctors willing to recommend the drug so that they can register as a legal user.
"There are a very small number of (doctors) who have been willing to recommend," said Faith Benedetti of Winslow, who uses medical marijuana and also is a caregiver who provides the drug to other patients. Patients have to educate and persuade their doctors, she said. "Make him sick of hearing you say it until you get what you need."
Individuals have until Jan. 1 to register as legal users. Potential dispensaries have until June 25 to apply for one of the eight licenses. (For more information, go to: http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/dlrs/)
Maine's new law is being closely watched.
"There is an opportunity now in this state to set an example for the rest of the country," said Montel Williams, a television talk show host and national medical marijuana advocate who delivered a passionate -- and at times pained -- keynote address Saturday. Williams urged the audience to work together, share ideas and stay focused on helping sick patients.
Williams told the audience how he has been dealing with chronic, severe pain in his feet for 11 years due to multiple sclerosis. Prescription pain medication clouded his mind and made it impossible to work, while marijuana reduces the pain to a bearable level without the side effects, he said.
Twice during his speech, Williams stopped because of the pain, wiped tears from his eyes and apologized to the audience because he hadn't smoked any medicine before arriving. "My feet are on fire," he said.
Eventually, Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion spoke up from audience. "Montel, why don't you just take your medicine?"
Williams sat briefly on the stage, lit a marijuana joint and took one short puff. The audience cheered. "I just took the pain from a 7 to a 5.5," he said, before finishing his speech.
Medical marijuana dispensaries may be temporarily banned in Portland.
The City Council on Monday will consider a proposed moratorium that would be in effect for as long as six months while the city sets up new rules and zoning language to regulate such an operation. Councilors could send the matter to a subcommittee or vote on the proposal Monday if seven members agree to treat it as an emergency.
Biddeford, South Portland and several other Maine cities and towns have already passed similar moratoriums. Officials in some communities say there needs to be clear operating rules and siting standards, such as setback distances from schools.
No dispensaries have yet been proposed for Portland or any other Maine community. The state is accepting applications from prospective operators by June 25 and then will select eight to open the state's first licensed dispensaries, one in each region of the state. Cumberland and York counties will each get one dispensary.