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Congress values medical marijuana programs — what about Maine officials?

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I was so relieved to learn that the bipartisan budget deal passed by Congress included protections for states with medical marijuana programs.  Language in the law prevents the Department of Justice from using funds to interfere with state laws “that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

I am grateful to know that our congressional representatives in Washington D.C. value how much medical marijuana changes and saves lives.

However, I’m worried that our elected officials here in Maine don’t feel the same way.  Since shortly after the referendum legalizing recreational marijuana passed, some legislators and even the governor have questioned the need for continuing the medical marijuana program.

It’s frustrating to hear because so many of us – caregivers, lawmakers, DHHS officials, patients, and dispensary reps – we’ve all worked so hard over the years to make this program as strong and as vibrant as it is. Governor Lepage himself signed a law, LD 1296, in 2011 that strengthened the quality of the program and enabled established caregivers to expand their services by hiring an employee.

I’m hoping to get a chance to speak to the governor personally to make sure he has a full understanding of the program. I did get a chance to speak to George Hale and Ric Tyler to clarify some misinformation someone the governor shared during a radio interview, but I’m hoping for an opportunity to talk to him face to face.

I am confident that if the governor had a better understanding of our program, he’d take take great pride in it.

I know how deeply LePage values Mainers and their work ethic, and our program is full of over 3800 caregivers, supporting themselves by caring for patients in need. These caregivers pay taxes, employ over 200 others, and help support other businesses in their communities.

I know that the governor also values efficient, effective programs, and Maine’s medical marijuana program is as efficient and as effective as they come.  Even as Maine DHHS has failed to keep pace with the evolving regulatory practices found in other states, caregivers have worked to achieve these standards on their own.  Fees paid by participants more than cover the administrative costs of the program, so there is no reason for the department to have neglected it.

Further, caregivers and dispensaries serve almost 50,000 patients, who pay taxes on the purchase of their medicine and who have a right to expect officials to protect their access.

It’s unfortunate that I can’t quantify exactly how much sales tax revenue is generated by medical marijuana sales because the state doesn’t track those sales as such. This lack of data makes caregivers easy targets for speculation about underpaying or not paying taxes, and this speculation reflects poorly on us.  I know I pay my appropriate taxes, and as a consultant I’ve assisted over 200 other caregiving businesses establish themselves as taxpaying LLC’s.

One of the most frustrating things about the pending implementation of a legalized recreational market is the uncertainty it has brought to our program, in spite of clear language in the referendum prohibiting interference.  This uncertainty has put our community on defense causing me to spend too much time defending the program in terms of numbers.

This state of affairs is truly sad because the best interest of the patients we serve is more important than numbers.  The stories of their recoveries are far more valuable than the established value of our program in dollars and cents.  When I hear someone say why have two separate marijuana programs, I think, because patients are patients, NOT customers.

Unlike recreational customers, medical marijuana patients need privacy and consultation time.  Patients may need specific strains and products that are not profitable enough to appeal to recreational growers/product developers.  My patients come to me at the most challenging times in their lives:  after receiving a late-stage cancer diagnosis, after learning their child has a severe seizure disorder, while battling a mental health crisis.

My patients deserve better than to “fend for themselves” on a recreational retail market that may not see enough profit in meeting their needs.  I just can’t imagine the support person for someone with a terminal diagnosis having to ask for suppositories in a recreational retail outlet full of casual users.  The difference between the two approaches to marijuana access is significant.

I am hopeful that our legislators follow Congress’ lead, especially given an unknown future for recreational marijuana under the Trump administration.  I’m sure they can come to understand this difference between recreational and medical marijuana as the final details on a recreational market are developed.  Most importantly, I hope our elected officials come to understand that Maine’s medical marijuana program is not only something to be preserved, but to be celebrated.

Catherine Lewis 

Owner, Homegrown Healthcare Alternative Wellness, Apothecary and Learning Center