MAINE COMPASS: Medical marijuana program faces uncertainty from new rules
Paul T. McCarrier, Hillary Lister and Alisha Melnick
Imagine that you have Crohn's disease, terminal cancer or chronic pain from a serious car accident. You'vetried all the drugs out there, but they make you nauseated, withdrawn or cause severe headaches.
When you try to stop taking them, you feel anxious and crampy and can't sleep. You're scared because friends have gotten hooked on some of these drugs, and you know someone who died from an overdose.
The one thing that allows you to eat, sleep, or function semi-normally is marijuana.
The cannabis plant has never been the cause of an overdose, and is proven to have a wide range of medical benefits with few side effects.
You've talked with your doctor, who agrees marijuana would be the best treatment for you, but clarifies that it will not be covered under any health plan. You'll have to grow it or buy it.
James is an older man who suffers from pain caused by a genetic disease. He lives in Waldo, off the grid and on limited income, so he can't afford to buy his medical marijuana.
He's been able to avoid many of the narcotics he could be prescribed by being able to grow his own marijuana.
Now the Department of Health & Human Services is proposing rules would require the fence around his plants to be 8 feet tall, with motion-sensitive lighting, more than 25 feet from a property line, with other yet undefined "security measures," making it unaffordable and functionally impossible for him to legally cultivate.
Maine has allowed medical use of cannabis since 1999 with minimal fanfare, public attention or concern. Patients worked with their doctors to get their medicine of choice, but both found the law too limiting.
In 2009, Maine citizens overwhelmingly voted to expand the medical marijuana program, creating a dispensary system, allowing more people to become caregivers for patients, and creating an optional state registry for patients.
Following the 2009 citizen's initiative, a task force was set up that was supposed to implement the changes to the law, but instead veered away from the intent of the initiative. Legislation and rules were rushed through with little public input requiring patients to register with the DHHS and doctors to disclose private medical information, removing legal protections from arrest and effectively banning outdoor growing.
The law was reformed in 2011 by LD 1296, a bill sponsored by Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, which restored the intent of the initiative by making registration voluntary for patients, bringing back legal protections from arrest and ensuring protected outdoor growing in an enclosed, locked facility. The bill passed with unanimous approval from the House and Senate, a rare example of bipartisan consensus.
The ACLU of Maine and the patients and caregivers who make up Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine were integrally involved in both the 2009 citizens' initiative and the 2011 law. Both were explicitly intended to protect patients who care for themselves. In a rural state such as Maine, for many, that means outdoor growing.
We've talked to many people who collected signatures for the 2009 initiative and were regularly asked whether outdoor growing would be permitted; they consistently answered yes. When we were asked by legislators, constituents and the press whether the 2011 bill would permit outdoor growing, we consistently answered yes.
It was clearly the intent of the people, the bill drafters, the legislators and the governor's office to allow patient access through outdoor cultivation.
Given the financial realities for many Mainers these days, and the fact that marijuana is not covered by health insurance (unlike pharmaceutical pills), use of nature's low-cost grow room is the only way they are able to obtain their medicine.
The proposed rule changes would cut off access to a safe, affordable treatment. Many people who benefit from the ability to grow their own medicine have been able to wean off dependence on pharmaceutical medications that were causing unwanted side effects.
Maine has become a national model on how to have a responsible, state-regulated, patient-focused program.
If the rules are enacted as written, it will go against Gov. Paul LePage's stated goal of getting people off state aid, require patients to turn to subsidized pharmaceutical medications, and place unnecessary burdens on Maine people when they can least afford it.
Paul T. McCarrier is the legislative liaison and Hillary Lister is the president of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, the state's largest medical marijuana trade organization. Alisha Melnick is public policy counsel for ACLU of Maine.