Sunday, September 20, 2009

Revise of Maine's marijuana law up for vote in November

sponsored by BY SUSAN M. COVER
Staff Writer


AUGUSTA -- The leader of a group hoping to expand the state's medical-marijuana law says while he's prepared for a campaign on Question 5, he doesn't anticipate much opposition.
Jonathan Leavitt, who leads Maine Citizens for Patients Rights, said a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and a new administration in Washington have made medical marijuana -- and dispensaries created to distribute it -- less controversial. "Our polling indicates this is not a controversial issue anymore," he said.

Leavitt's group gathered the signatures necessary to put a ballot question before voters on Nov. 3 that adds to the number of conditions for which a physician can prescribe marijuana and allows the creation of nonprofit dispensaries.

The proposal expands the action taken by Maine voters in 1999 to allow the use of medical marijuana. Current law allows those with a prescription to grow up to six plants, but Leavitt has said the reality is most people buy it on the black market.

"Our job here is to make a law already on the books actually function for patients," Leavitt said. "This is about making sure people have their medicine."

To date, there's no organized opposition to Question 5, yet two top state officials -- one in law enforcement and the other in health -- offered warnings against the ballot question.

Roy McKinney, head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said as a public official he could not get involved in the campaign. But he restated his belief, originally shared with state lawmakers, that dispensaries would lead to misuse and could increase crimes such as robberies and loitering. "We were looking at the public safety ramifications of having legalized dispensaries of marijuana, regardless of what the underlying issue is," he said.

The citizen initiative calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee the dispensaries, which would be required to pay a $5,000 fee to the department, as well as comply with other regulations regarding who may work in a dispensary.

Also, the bill states that dispensaries cannot be located within 500 feet of a public or private school and that "cultivation of marijuana must take place in an enclosed, locked facility."

Dispensaries would be permitted to issue no more than 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana to a qualifying patient, or his or her primary caregiver, every 15 days.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said she opposes the ballot question for several reasons.

"There are no valid studies that show marijuana effectively treats the many conditions most proponents purport," she said.

Mills said there are prescriptions available that are more effective and don't come with side effects associated with smoking. She also has concerns about making the drug more readily available -- fearing it will end up in the hands of teenagers -- and that marijuana continues to be illegal on the federal level. "It's illegal for a reason, because we know there are effective, safe prescription medications that treat these conditions," she said.

The bill defines the conditions for which a doctor can prescribe marijuana. The list includes cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Crohn's disease, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions that produce pain that has not responded to other treatments for more than six months.

Maine is one of 13 states to allow the use of medical marijuana. If Question 5 passes, Maine would be the fifth state to permit dispensaries.

And while marijuana is illegal on the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court in May dismissed claims filed by two California counties that argued the state's medical-marijuana law should be thrown out because it conflicts with federal law.

Also in March, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he would not continue the Bush-era practice of raiding medical-marijuana dispensaries, according to the New York Times.

Unlike other, more high-profile ballot questions Maine voters will face in November, only Leavitt's group has registered to raise and spend money on Question 5, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

So far this year, Maine Citizens for Patients Rights has raised $20,000. The most recent campaign reports filed in July showed a $5,000 contribution from the Drug Policy Alliance of New York.

By contrast, there are 15 groups raising and spending money on Question 1, a proposed repeal of the state's gay-marriage law. And the two tax issues, Question 2 and Question 4, each have seven groups involved in the campaign, according to the commission.

Totals raised and spent on all the campaigns will be updated in mid-October, the next filing deadline for political action committees.

"We are fully prepared for the campaign, and anticipate we'll have all the resources necessary to win," Leavitt said.

Susan Cover -- 620-7015

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