John Thiele may have been terminated for being ‘too friendly’ to medical marijuana interests

The head of Maine’s medical marijuana program announced at a public meeting that he has been terminated from his position, according to two people who attended the meeting. John Thiele, who worked in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, broke the news Friday at a Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine event, in advance of the group’s Home Grown Maine exposition Saturday in Portland. “This is not good news for Maine’s medical marijuana program,” said Chris Kenoyer, a licensed caregiver who attended the meeting. Kenoyer said Thiele was “very responsive and respectful” and was the go-to person for questions about state laws on the subject.

Rep. Mark Dion, who worked with Thiele both as a lawmaker and as an attorney who represents medical marijuana caregivers, confirmed that Thiele had been let go. “I had actually heard it in the community sometime in the last week,” the Portland Democrat said Sunday. “I always thought he was helpful, prompt. I was surprised.” Neither Thiele nor his boss, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, returned calls for comment Sunday. The department has not announced Thiele’s dismissal.

Kenoyer said the reason Thiele gave for his dismissal on Friday was that he had become “too friendly with patients and caregivers.” Dion characterized things slightly differently: “There was thought that he was acting more as a social worker than a regulator,” he said. In a post advertising Saturday’s event on the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine website, Thiele was listed as “the patient-friendly former director of the Maine DHHS medical use of marijuana program.”

Maine voters legalized marijuana for medical purposes through a citizens’ initiative in 1999, but the program has undergone a significant expansion in the past few years. In 2009, voters overwhelmingly passed a law that created nonprofit marijuana dispensaries, allowed certified caregivers to grow marijuana for as many as five patients and expanded the acceptable conditions under which a patient could be certified. By most estimates, the program has grown considerably, although the state has no way to track the number of medical marijuana patients.

Another new law, passed last year, made registration voluntary, so there is no way to know how many patients have been certified or how many doctors are certifying patients. Some have argued that fewer restrictions have made the system ripe for abuse, especially because one of the new conditions — intractable pain — is subjective. Maine doctors now have sole discretion about whether to certify patients, and some are becoming de facto specialists. Dr. Dustin Sulak, a Falmouth medical marijuana practitioner, told the Portland Press Herald last month that he had certified “thousands” of patients. His practice even offered student discounts for medical marijuana evaluations.

In an interview with the Press Herald about a month ago, Thiele said that even though the program had become less regulated in recent years, it was well-run. He also said his office recently drafted new rules to improve the program further, but it doesn’t appear those rules have been implemented yet. Kenoyer said he and other medical marijuana advocates are concerned that Thiele’s dismissal could signal a shift in the direction of state policy. Dion said the rulemaking process has been slower than expected, but he doesn’t think things are on hold. “If there was a shift in policy, I would think there would be some communication,” he said.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, who has strongly favored expanding Maine’s medical marijuana program and who drafted last year’s bill that made patient registration voluntary, said she would be disappointed if the new rules are shelved. Sanderson had not heard about Thiele’s dismissal by Sunday. When told, she said she was shocked. “I have no idea why he would be let go,” she said. Dion said several people asked Thiele on Friday about his dismissal, but Thiele did not offer much information.

“I think he plans to appeal the decision,” Dion said. Thiele has been the public face of Maine’s medical marijuana program for the last year, but has worked in the licensing division for a number of years, Dion said. His ouster is the latest in a long line of DHHS personnel shakeups since Gov. Paul LePage was elected in 2010. Thiele’s predecessor, Catherine Cobb, stepped down last November about a month after she was placed on leave as part of a managerial review. In October of last year, the state’s former welfare director, Barbara Van Burgel, was let go. She later said she was pushed out by the new administration.

Others who have left DHHS in the past two years include James Beogher, director of the Child and Family Services program, Don Chamberlain and Ron Welch of the Adult Mental Health Services program, Diana Scully of the Elder Services program, Jane Gallivan of Adults with Cognitive and Physical Disabilities, and Anthony Marple, head of MaineCare Services.

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