Maine medical pot rules too strict, panel is told

Medical marijuana dispensaries are opening around Maine as part of a voter-approved program to expand legal access to the drug.  But advocates and lawmakers from both parties said Monday that rules for obtaining cannabis are so restrictive and intrusive that many patients are still buying it on the black market, or continuing to suffer without it.

“This is a step backwards for patient access,” said Jacob McClure, a small-scale grower and the leader of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. “The state is much more interested in making (the rules) convenient for themselves or for law enforcement” than for patients.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee is considering three proposals to change the law passed by voters in 2009 and implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services last year.

The DHHS set up a network of eight licensed dispensaries – at least three of which have begun operating – and imposed new rules on caregivers and patients who grow marijuana in their homes.

The proposal that’s generating the most debate would dramatically reduce regulation and oversight. It would eliminate requirements that patients register with the state and have a specific, qualifying medical condition, such as AIDS or glaucoma.

DHHS opposes the deregulation, and the Maine Medical Association opposes parts of it. However, it had overwhelming support from patients and suppliers who filled a hearing room Monday afternoon.

Faith Benedetti, a medical marijuana patient who helped craft the state’s rules, said the registration requirement is discouraging patients and doctors from taking advantage of the law. Some fear that the private information will end up in the hands of the federal government, which officially considers all marijuana use a crime.

“It’s proven more workable in theory than in practice,” Benedetti said. “For every 1,000 qualifying patients who have registered with the state in the past year, there are thousands more who are reluctant to be registered for fear of being listed in a database.”

The bill, L.D. 1296, would make registration optional. Patients without state registration cards would need only doctors’ recommendations to prove they are legal users, said supporters of the bill.

Advocates also said the state should no longer limit use to patients with state-designated conditions, and instead accept all doctors’ recommendations. While the law now allows conditions to be added to the list by a panel of medical experts, no panel has been created.

“It’s frustrating to see that a board has not been appointed yet to expand the list of conditions,” said Eric Friberg, a caregiver from South Portland. “A physician’s recommendation should be the only thing a patient needs to obtain medication.”

Dr. Dustin Sulak, a physician in Hallowell, said marijuana is helping many of his patients deal with debilitating medical conditions, but he has to deny the drug to others who could benefit.

“I have to tell them, ‘Sorry, you don’t qualify because lawmakers made this list of conditions,'” he said.

Sulak said he has asked the state to add certain conditions, “and that hasn’t gone anywhere.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said the state should not impose rules and fees that don’t apply to other legal treatments.

“Let the physician determine which conditions this form of treatment is appropriate for,” she said.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, also spoke in support of the bill. The former Cumberland County sheriff is a director of Northeast Patients Group, a state-licensed dispensary operator.

“We should leave the practice of medicine to the individual physician,” he said.

The Maine Medical Association wants the state to keep the list of qualifying conditions, rather than allow physicians to authorize “off-label” use, said Kristin Murray-James, who presented testimony from the association.

“We believe that a conservative approach is warranted,” she said.

The DHHS said the deregulation proposal would open the door to abuse and confusion.

Catherine Cobb, director of licensing and regulatory services for the department, said patients’ information is kept confidential, and it is against the law to share names with the federal government.

Without registration cards, the state would not be able to track medical marijuana suppliers, and police would have to investigate medical marijuana patients unnecessarily, she said.

Eliminating the state’s list of qualifying conditions would expand marijuana use in the state far beyond the voter-approved law, Cobb said in written testimony.

That change “could lead to misuse of medical marijuana and promote admission of ‘pot docs’ to practice medicine in this state as has occurred in other states where the door is wide open to physician prescribing,” Cobb said.

The Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled to discuss the proposals May 2 before deciding whether to recommend any changes.

via : Press Herald

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