One of the few bills that managed to pass in the Legislature last week was LD 1539, “An Act To Amend Maine's Medical Marijuana Law” — and I’m so glad that it did.
Gov. LePage vetoed it — as he’s done with an asinine amount of bills this month (see page 5) — but the House and Senate managed to override the veto after a vote, 119-23 and 25-8 respectively.
The bill will bring some big, and in my opinion, necessary changes to Maine’s medical marijuana system once it becomes law in 90 days.
Under the new legislation, patients and caregivers are given more access and choice. Now, nurses and physicians will be allowed to recommend marijuana to patients they think would benefit from it. Gone is the list of qualifying conditions. Before, patients could only be recommended marijuana for treatment if they suffered from seven specific ailments, including glaucoma, AIDS and Alzheimer's.
Now, if you’ve got a convincing case for why you need some marijuana in medicine cabinet, any doctor can prescribe you some. And because scientific studies have found that marijuana is effective in mitigating symptoms like chronic pain, inflammation, nausea, and eating disorders, this bill opens the doors for more safe treatment options.
The legislation also grants six new medical dispensary licenses and allows caregivers to expand their businesses and open more storefronts. It also allows for the new licenses to be issued for people who make marijuana edibles, extracts, and tinctures.
Critics shouldn’t fret — there's still plenty of government oversight and people running those facilities need to follow the state’s rules. The legislation allows for state inspectors to show up at these facilities unannounced to ensure that everything’s up to code, which should keep things safe. The unlicensed “home labs” using butane oil to create marijuana tinctures that propped up in Lewiston and Biddeford earlier this year and posed fire risks are still illegal. In addition, towns that haven’t already can vote on whether or not they want these types of stores and facilities in their community, adding another layer of regulation.
What else is good in the bill? Oh, qualifying patients will be allowed to possess up to eight pounds of medical marijuana, which is good for rural Mainers who don’t have the luxury to drive to a dispensary on a regular basis. Essentially the bill will make it easier for folks to get prescribed marijuana for their ailments, and make it easier for Maine’s network of 3,000 caregivers to reach these new patients.
LePage’s opposition to this bill seems less about keep the medical and recreational markets distinct, and more about the fact that it’s about increasing access to marijuana (there hasn't been a single marijuana-related measure he's supported during his tenure). Most of the arguments he wrote against it in his veto letter are bunk. For example, he’s against medical dispensaries opening storefronts for card-carrying patients, but this practice already occurs. If you’ve got your green card, you can legally buy marijuana at the Wellness Connection on Congress Street, and (*gasp*) the experience resembles one you might have at any other kind of store.
LePage also writes that he’s worried the recreational and medical market will “cannibalize each other” without the strict list of qualifying condition for the medical program.
But that argument implies that medical professionals are not knowledgeable enough to determine if a person needs a marijuana prescription. Doctors know the science and they know their patients. They know that the chemicals in marijuana, cannabinoids are an effective treatment for not just physical ailments, but mental ones like PTSD. They also know that prescribing marijuana can help people get clean from harder drugs, like opiates. A detailed study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found a link between legally protected medical marijuana dispensaries and a decrease in opioid prescribing, self-reports of opioid misuses, and treatment admission for opioid addiction. If doctors are not allowed to prescribe medical marijuana to people suffering from opiate addiction, it could literally save lives.
In short, this bill isn’t about making it easy for anyone to get high. It’s about alleviating pain and suffering from Mainers who need it most.
Besides, I highly doubt that under this new legislation, doctors in Maine will start giving out marijuana prescriptions willy nilly to anyone who asks. Though that seems to be LePage’s biggest fear, it’s high time (hyuck!) he realizes that the people who might not qualify for a prescription but want marijuana are finding ways to obtain it anyway.
The way I see it, this new marijuana bill makes the recreational and medical markets more distinct, not less.