01:00 AM EST on Sunday, March 6, 2011
By Tracy Breton
Journal Staff Writer
Lewiston Sun Journal / Amber Waterman If all goes as planned, the Rhode Island Department of Health will announce Tuesday who has been selected to open dispensaries that will legally sell marijuana to patients who have been certified by doctors as needing the drug to help cope with debilitating pain or disease.
But even if the groups proposing dispensaries go on a fast track to build facilities and start growing product, Rhode Island will not be the first state in New England to open such businesses.
By the end of this month, one state-regulated dispensary will open in Frenchville, Maine, on the Canadian border, according to John Thiele, program manager for Maine’s Medical Use of Marijuana Program. It will be the first on the East Coast.
Two more dispensaries are expected to open, one in Biddeford and another in Ellsworth, by the end of April. A fourth, located in a shopping plaza in Auburn, plans to open in May, run by a couple, Tim and Jenna Smale.
Both Rhode Island and Maine have allowed medicinal marijuana for several years –– since 1999 in Maine, and beginning in 2006 in Rhode Island. The programs were started in both states to help people who claimed to get little relief from prescription drugs to cope with pain, wasting syndrome and agitation caused by a host of conditions, including cancer, HIV and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the administrators of the respective programs, it’s not elderly cancer or AIDS patients who most often register to legally use marijuana, but those with “other” chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative bone disease.
Like Rhode Island, Maine has central control over medicinal marijuana dispensaries and over their monitoring. But in Maine, there has been considerable opposition to the creation of the dispensaries and concerns over their potential effect on public safety.
In Rhode Island, where one to three dispensaries have been authorized, the opposition has been relatively muted. Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, a former state prosecutor, was one of just a few people who testified against the dispensaries at a recent Department of Health hearing on the applications by the 18 entities that want dispensary licenses.
Fung said that while he finds the concept of medicinal marijuana “noble,” he objects to the dispensaries on legal grounds. The federal government still classifies cannabis as “a dangerous drug,” he pointed out, and he thinks dispensaries will create too much work for his Police Department.
There are two dispensary proposals for Cranston and a third group wants to grow marijuana there for dispensary sale elsewhere.
Tim Smale has used medicinal marijuana for about eight years for migraine headaches, and his wife is his caregiver. They got their first taste of dispensaries when they were living in California, and “we are now tapping into all of our savings and have secured loans from trusted friends and family who have a similar vision” for their new business, Remedy Compassion Center. It will operate next door to a crafts store in a shopping plaza that also includes a Bed Bath & Beyond and a movie theater.
Thiele, the government administrator who will oversee the dispensary program in Maine, anticipates that dispensaries like the one the Smales are opening will provide a more accessible way for some of Maine’s most pain-ridden residents to legally get marijuana.
Now, as is the case in Rhode Island, people using marijuana for medical reasons must either grow it themselves or get it from a grower or caregiver.
The dispensaries in Maine are seen as a new source of revenue for a cash-strapped state which, like Rhode Island, is hungry for revenue. Product sold will be subject to Maine’s 5-percent sales tax, and everyone from patients, caregivers and officers, board members and employees of the dispensaries will have to pay annual registration fees.
But the law in Maine that is allowing the dispensaries to open –– which for the first time regulates the delivery system for medicinal marijuana –– has been hard to implement. It has also caused a lot of ill will among various constituencies.
Guy Cousins, director of the Office of Substance Abuse within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which now administers the medical marijuana program, testified against the bill that authorized dispensaries when it was being considered by the legislature in 2009, citing public safety issues.
Allowing patients or caregivers to possess 2½ ounces of marijuana every 15 days will lead to diversion of the drug to family members or friends, either by sale or theft, he said.
The state, he complained, will be saddled with increased administrative costs to keep track of participants in the program.
The Maine Medical Association opposed the original medical marijuana law based on “medical risks associated with marijuana use,” but took no position on the legislation authorizing dispensaries.
Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, testified that while it might appear that the state would regulate storefront medical marijuana dispensaries like it regulates pharmacies, “nothing could be further from the truth.
Numerous California communities that have permitted dispensaries have found that they have resulted in negative and harmful secondary effects, including significant increases in traffic, crime and noise,” he said.
The Maine Chiefs of Police Association opposed the referendum that created the dispensaries. Robert Schwartz, executive director, said the group’s position was based on “public safety issues and addictions that people have had. It leads to other drugs.”
In addition to public safety concerns, there has been some push-back from municipalities. Some cities and towns in Maine have passed moratoriums to block dispensaries from opening. This has forced some dispensary operators to change site plans.
And the task of administering the program has proved to be a nightmare for Thiele, who with the help of just one data-entry operator, has been required in the last two months to process more than 1,000 applications from certified patients and caregivers. Although medicinal marijuana became legal in the state 12 years ago, registration cards were never required until Jan. 1 of this year. Because it costs money to register, most people “waited until the last minute” to do so, Thiele said.
Rhode Island has always required medical marijuana users and growers to register with the Department of Health. But the state could face a crush of applications if dispensaries suddenly opened and marijuana becomes more accessible for medicinal use.
Thiele finds that he now has a backlog of applications. Approximately 100 card applications sit on his desk, submitted by patients who’ve been certified by doctors to legally have the drug or by their designated growers. “We’re just overwhelmed,” he says, wondering out loud whether he’s ever going to find time to conduct inspections of those who get certified as caregivers and of the new dispensaries that will soon open.
Jonathan Leavitt, who heads a caregivers lobbying organization in Maine and who was the force behind a citizens initiative that collected 85,000 signatures from Maine residents to get the medical-marijuana-dispensary bill on the ballot in 2009, says “marijuana in Maine is the number-one cash crop in the state.”
“You would not believe how much of the economy of Maine is directly or indirectly related to the production of marijuana,” Leavitt said. “In small towns, members of boards of selectman and law enforcement officers are growers, dealers or patients. It’s a big fabric of Maine life, from people in their 60s and 70s to people down in their 20s. We sat in front of state representatives when we testified on the bill who grew it.”
He said one of the main reasons he was in favor of the dispensary legislation was to increase patient access to medical marijuana. In Maine, many physicians tend to be older and “not well educated about the medical benefits of marijuana,” and since much of the state is rural, patients –– some of whom still can’t even find doctors to approve marijuana use –– needed an additional supply source.
Thiele said that one of the criteria for selecting who got the dispensary licenses was their delivery systems. “They’ve promised to do home deliveries to the disabled and they’ve said they’ll deliver 7 days a week.”
But that’s the rub. Now, what Thiele referred to as Maine’s “cottage industry” of caregivers feel betrayed by what they see as “big business” dispensaries cutting into their ability to make a living.
“What’s emerged is so out of whack with what we envisioned,” Leavitt said. “When this started, we envisioned small mom and pop stores in every city and town in the state that would complement the almost nonexistent caregiver system in the state but not put the dispensaries at a big disadvantage. We envisioned a horizontal framework where caregivers and dispensaries would be on an equal footing and work symbiotically and on a scale that was really, really sustainable.
“But the legislature altered the law so significantly that we don’t think dispensaries are a viable option anymore. So much capital is required to open them that it disqualified 99.999 percent of the people of Maine from operating them.”
|Medical marijuana in 2 New England states|
|Key Facts About Registries and Dispensaries||R.I.||Maine|
|Number of Doctor-Certified Patients Registered with the State||3,253||850|
|Number of Registered Caregivers Who Grow or Administer the Drug||2,059||191|
|Number of Doctors Licensed To Practice Statewide||5,621||5,071|
|Number of Doctors Who Have Certified Patients for Medical Marijuana Use||453||190|
|Number of Dispensaries Allowed by State||Up to 3||8|
|Fee Charged by State to Medical Marijuana Dispensaries||$5,000 to open, plus $5,000 renewal fee every 2 years||$15,000 to open, plus $15,000 annual renewal fee|
|Patient Fee Charged by State to Register for Medical Marijuana Program||$75 every 2 years, $10 every 2 years if on Medicaid, SSI or SSDI||$100 annually, $75 annually if on Medicaid, SSI or SSDI|
|Caregiver Fee Charged by State to Register||$75 every 2 years||$300 annually|
|Fee Charged by State for Each Registered Principal Officer, Board Member or Employee of an Authorized Dispensary||none||$25 annually|
|Registry Cards Required by State for Hospice or Nursing Home Staff Administering Medical Marijuana||no||yes|
|Maximum Amount of Marijuana Allowed Per Person Certified for Dispensary Program||2.5 ounces every 15 days||2.5 ounces every 15 days|
|Caregiver Grow Maximums||5 client patients, 24 mature plants||5 client patients, 30 mature plants|
|Secrecy||Names of patients, doctors who certify them and individual caregivers are confidential||Names of patients, doctors who certify them and individual caregivers are confidential|
|Total Population||1 million||1.3 million|