On Friday, Governor of Maine, Paul LePage, vetoed a medical marijuana bill that would enable doctors to certify the use of cannabis for any medical reason. LePage, a steadfast opponent of legalization, sent a veto letter late afternoon listing 11 reasons why he was against the bill, ranging from complaints about setting up a research fund to licensing hazardous extraction laboratories.
At the same time, he noted that his list was by no means exhaustive. The bill, held over to a special legislative session last week, was an attempt by the Legislature to deal with longstanding issues in the state’s medical marijuana program, which has only twice gone through significant changes since its establishment in 1999. Currently, there are 42,000 certified medical marijuana patients in Maine.
The bill would allow physicians to recommend patients get a medical marijuana card for any palliative or therapeutic use that physician feels appropriate. Effectively, this would eliminate the state’s list of qualifying conditions, which range from Alzheimer’s disease to chronic pain, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. Currently, patients must have a qualifying condition to get a card legally.
This bill grew out of a desire by lawmakers to allow physicians to recommend marijuana use for the treatment of opioid addiction. Now, it goes to the Legislature for override consideration, but whether there will be enough supporters to override LePage’s veto is anybody’s guess at this point. After several political delays, where parties traded votes on an array of bills still on the table, lawmakers conducted multiple, mostly voice votes to send the reform bill to Blaine House.
However, Senator Eric Brakey, a Republic from Auburn and co-chair of the legislative committee that wrote the bill, thinks that it will have to two-thirds support it needs to override the veto. “These bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate,” Brakey explained. He said that an override would “increase the choice for patients and legal businesses, while increasing the integrity of our medical cannabis program.”
The bisll would also allow the 3,000 registered caregivers in Maine to grow their business operations, enabling them to treat as many as they possibly can from their limited harvest and employ as many as they need. The law currently limits them to one employee and no more than five patients at any given time. Officially, the bill would also sanction retail shops for caregivers.
Last year, state medical marijuana dispensaries received $24.5 million from Mainers. A trade group representing the caregiving community, called Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, believes that patients spent around the same amount buying from caregivers, which increases revenue for the industry to $50 million a year. However, state tax records do not track caregiver sales, not as a group.
For LePage, the issue is the bill’s caregiver shop provisions, which would establish caregivers in the retail market before recreational use even launches. Although the adult-use program requires retailers to meet a robust list of conditions to obtain a state license, he says that this reform bill would enable caregivers to conduct business with no qualifications other than residency in Maine.
It would be wiser for consider such expansion of medical retail operations next session, once the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services and policymakers have set up an adult-use program and had a chance to reflect on any lessons learned from its roll out. LePage argued that the programs must “coexist rather than cannibalize each other.”
LePage petitioned lawmakers to consider standalone legislation that brings further oversight immediately to caregivers and the medical marijuana program. Although the bill would expand caregiver powers, it would also saddle them with more state oversight, such as unannounced inspections of their grow sites, including those operating out of caregiver’s homes.
Some caregiver operations, especially the smaller ones, consider these home inspections a major invasion of their privacy, as well as the privacy of their patients. Despite this, LePage argued that the bill does not provide the state with sufficient authority or resources to manage or justify expanding the medical program this way.
The bill does not give power to the state to drug test the extra employees allotted to caregivers, for example, nor does it require caregivers to provide proof of sales tax registration prior to selling medical weed. It should have expanding the type of felony conviction than disqualifies someone from getting a caregiver card, LePage reiterated.
As with the current law, LePage says the bill he vetoed prohibits someone from caregiving if he or she has a felony drug conviction, but it specifically does not address violent felons. LePage wrote that this leaves “patients vulnerable and the program open to potentially dangerous and violent criminals.” He does seem against medical marijuana reform, he just wants the bill to consider these factors.
Changes in Administration
LePage also wrote that the bill creates a notable new administrative burden on the medical program, but with insufficient increase in staffing to implement it. It makes tax changes that allow caregivers and dispensaries to expensive costs of their equipment, an expensive deviation from existing tax law that puts Maine at odds with the federal tax code.
Additionally, the bill would license cannabis extraction facilities, which manufacture the concentrates used to make edibles, soils, and salves so popular with non-smokers. LePage believes these laboratories pose a massive risk to public health because extraction involves the use of inherently dangerous materials.
The processor section of the bill is its own standalone emergency legislation, put there in the event that the bigger, more controversial bill was to fail. However, LePage vetoed that on Friday too. He accompanied that veto with another veto letter, worded even more strongly than his veto of the reform bill. He wants lawmakers to tighten all aspects of the medical program, not leave gaping loopholes.
“Lawmakers need only look at the recent incidents in Ellsworth and Biddeford for an example of just how dangerous it can be to extract marijuana concentrates with these materials,” he stated, citing the most recent disasters occurring in illegal home laboratories. “Passing legislation that would permit newly established manufacturing facilities to conduct this same work, in the absence of rule of certification, is irresponsible.”
The legislation would allow the use of cannabis in any form, including in potentially dangerous ways, such as injectable concentrates, eye drops, and tasteless powders, which, according to LePage, are already causing significant problems in other states with legalized medical marijuana programs. On Monday, the Legislature plans to reconvene to take up the vetoed bills.