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"Medical and Recreational Bills, Programs, Still in Limbo"

Written By:

Mike Reynolds

Since Maine voters passed the referendum to allow adults over the age of 21 to consume Cannabis in 2016, the fate of the nearly twenty year old medical marijuana program has been uncertain. This is mostly due to theuncertainty around the process for regulation and taxation of recreational Cannabis, as well as the rules around recreational Cannabis businesses and growing, processing and retail requirements. While much of this was outlined in the referendum, voted on in 2016, there was no mandate that the outline needed to be followed.

In early 2017, the Maine Legislature formed the Marijuana Legalization Implementation (MLI) committee. Their task was to write the rules and have the program running by the beginning of 2018. The committee
worked for a majority of the year to come up with a bill, spending the majority of time writing the details from literally hundreds of hours of public meetings.

In late summer, the Department of Health and Human Services(DHHS) sent a notice of rule-making, with a public hearing scheduled in September. The Department can make minor and technical rule changes without legislative approval, but “major and substantive” changes need approval of the legislature, though the difference isn’t clearly defined.

In late October, the MLI passed the legislature, but was vetoed by the governor, which the legislature failed to override. In his veto letter, Governor Paul LePage cited his desire for the recreational Cannabis program to be regulated by the same government agency that regulates alcohol, lottery and tobacco sales. After the veto, the DHHS released their new rules, which had major changes for both caregivers and patients, including unannounced caregiver inspections and the ability to inspect non-cannabis growing patients with a 24-hour notice, rules not previously allowed. The rules had an effective date of February 1, 2018.

When this legislative year began, the DHHS subcommittee had a number of bills dealing with medical Cannabis from last year to resolve. Earlier this year, before the February 1 deadline, the subcommittee held a hearing to address these bills and other concerns. The hearing went on for over 13 hours. Because there was no legislative way to prevent the rules from taking effect and fearing that no bill could be passed to address the concerns that went with the new DHHS rules, Representative Deb Sanderson made a plea to the Governor that resulted in a 90-day moratorium on the rules, making the current effective date now May 1, 2018.

With the only notable exception being Representative Craig Hickman, a farmer from Winthrop, the MLI committee, in late February, unanimously agreed to terms of a new bill. Very soon after, the DHHS subcommittee agreed to a framework that will be the basis for the bill to be written. As of March 20, neither committee has a full bill written and it may take a couple weeks for that process to be finished. After the bill is finished, it will likely be debated and amended before going to a vote.

Even without the full wording there are a few bullet points that cause concern for many in the medical program: 1. a push to move the program to the same administrative department as recreational Cannabis, but not in same area that also oversees Alcohol, Lottery and Tobacco Taxes and fees. 2. Current Medical Cannabis dispensaries will be allowed to organize as for-profit entities, when the rules that awarded those same dispensary licenses clearly stated a mere eight years ago that they needed to be non-profit. Caregivers would be forced to use seed to sale tracking systems, although whether they would be forced to pay a monthly fee for the software is unclear. It remains to be seen what will become of the rules that are currently scheduled to take effect on May 1.

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