Maine wants to “harmonize” its medical and adult-use marijuana programs, but small growers, edible makers and retailers say the state’s proposed changes would drive them out of business and leave rural, cash-strapped patients without affordable medicine.
The Office of Marijuana Policy told state lawmakers Wednesday that it wants the medical and adult-use programs to abide by the same state rules whenever possible. It introduced a bill to apply the same plant size restriction, labeling rules, manufacturing safety and background checks to both programs.
The bill also would allow the state to impose hefty fines on medical marijuana businesses for breaking the rules. In the past, state regulators have had little wriggle room when it comes to dealing with rule breakers – suspending or revoking a license or doing nothing at all.
“The goal is to begin the process of aligning,” said Gabi Berube Pierce, policy director for the Office of Marijuana Policy. “We understand that this change may result in a change in cultivation practices in the medical program, however aligning these definitions is a necessary step.”
But the changes would hit mom-and-pop medical growers, edible makers and retail shops hard. They would represent a major regulatory shift for Maine’s medical marijuana program, which has been around since 1999 and appears to be thriving despite the state’s hands-off approach.
Fines ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 scare Kevin Falcon, a Winslow caregiver who runs an extraction lab. Under the department’s bill, a labeling typo could result in a “minor” violation that would result in a $10,000 or $25,000 fine, Falcon said. That would put most Maine caregivers out of business.
“You’re going to drive people underground because you’re making it over-expensive and making it impossible for a little guy,” Falcon said. “So you’re basically catering to the big money. They got all kinds of money that if they make a mistake they just throw money at it and move on.”
Although the state has eight licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, three quarters of the $111 million state market is served by a network of 2,600 medical marijuana caregivers. Under state laws, caregivers can grow, harvest and make products from up to 30 mature plants for card-carrying marijuana patients.
Most of Maine’s estimated 65,000 medical marijuana patients do not smoke their cannabis, but use infused oils, tinctures, foods or lotions that require marijuana oil to be extracted from the raw plant. In Maine, many small operators perform that extraction using food-grade alcohol.
On the advice of the state fire marshal, Maine wants to reclassify alcohol-based extractions as inherently hazardous, a change in the law that would require extractions to occur in commercial-grade, engineer-approved labs that cost about $100,000 to set up, much less operate.
It was this part of the bill – which mirrors language the department is trying to introduce into the recreational cannabis program under a separate piece of legislation – that prompted the most outcry from caregivers, labs and even patients who make their own medicine at home.
Caregivers told lawmakers that at least two-thirds of all non-smokable medical cannabis is made using food-grade alcohol, usually in closed-loop systems that keep all the solvent from escaping into the air. It is usually done at extremely cold temperatures to lower the risk of explosion.
While butane and propane extractions have resulted in fires and explosions, caregivers asked the state to offer evidence that alcohol-based extractions have led to problems that would necessitate “bomb shelter-style labs.” Simple extractions can be done in table-top machines you wouldn’t even know were running, they said.
“It’s almost like you want to run us caregivers out of business,” said Susan Meehan, an Augusta caregiver who provides free or low-cost medical marijuana products, usually made with alcohol, to pediatric patients. “We’re Maine citizens and we want to play by the rules. When the market is over-regulated, the black market thrives.”
One patient who identified as a recovering addict told lawmakers that she often borrowed a neighbor’s machine to make marijuana oil that she believes helps her stay clean. She said she doesn’t have the money to afford even low-cost oils found at caregivers shops to satisfy her daily medical needs.
State regulators told lawmakers Wednesday they are open to a compromise that would allow patients to keep making their own medicine. The committee’s House chairwoman, Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, urged both department officials, caregivers and patients to come back to them with a deal acceptable to all.
Some lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee sharply criticized the department’s proposal.
“I’ve got to say, I am a little disappointed,” said Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, whose fiery opening speech elicited cheers from the audience. “I see a lot of the things in this bill as a nail in the coffin of these businesses and we’re going to drive them underground.”
Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, doesn’t serve on the committee reviewing this bill, but serves on different one that is considering several new adult-use bills, and helped to write the current adult-use legalization law. He called this bill and others pending before the Legislature oppressive.
“We have changed the medical marijuana law 25 ways to Sunday,” Hickman said. “Sometimes you just have to leave well enough alone. What problem are we trying to solve? Has anybody died? Has the crime rate gone up? Looks to me like the state has made more money.”