|Starting January 1, medical marijuana patients in Maine are required by law to register with the state.|
More than 400 residents of Maine have applied to be medical marijuana patients under a new state law. Starting January 1, Mainers must be registered with the state before legally using cannabis medicinally.
For the past decade in Maine, ever since voters approved medical marijuana in 1999, patients had needed only a doctor’s authorization to use cannabis medicinally.
Applications flooded into the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in the final days and weeks of 2010, with hundreds more expected in the next several weeks, reports John Richardson at The Portland Press Herald. State officials said that expect to register 1,200 or more patients by the time the initial rush is over this spring.
“Everybody’s coming in at the last minute,” said Catherine Cobb, director of licensing and regulatory services for the health department. “We’ve been hammered.”
While the registration requirement took effect on schedule, Maine is taking longer than expected to meet another goal of the state’s expanded medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 2009: a network of state-licensed dispensaries.
|Graphic: Medical Marijuana Blog|
The law authorized eight medical marijuana dispensaries, which were initially scheduled to open for business in the fall or winter of 2010. Now, however, the first of Maine’s dispensaries isn’t expected to open until March or April.
“They would be the first California-style dispensaries on the East Coast,” Richardson reported.
“There’s no dispensary [open]right now, but… we have two dispensaries that are actually cultivating,” said John Thiele, manager of Maine’s medical marijuana program.
“The people of Maine did vote in a  referendum that they do want them available for their loved ones to use, so I would just like to see the dispensaries get up and running as soon as possible,” Thiele said.
Some officials expect another surge in registrations once the dispensaries open around the state.
Patients applying for a registration card must tell state officials where they will get their marijuana, and they are, at least until the dispensaries open, limited to two options: They can grow their own, or have a registered caregiver grow it for them.
Caregivers, each of whom can grow for up to five patients, are now the primary source of cannabis for Maine medical marijuana patients.
“Three hundred [patient]cards have been printed,” Thiele said on Thursday, the final processing day before the deadline. “We have probably in excess of 100 more applications that we’re going through now,” and more were flowing in Thursday afternoon.
Patients must pay $100 for the annual registration card, which is discounted to $75 if they are MaineCare patients. They must have a doctor’s recommendation and have one of the qualifying medical conditions listed by the state, including cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, cachexia, severe nausea, and intractable pain.
State officials have not yet gone through all the applications, but Cobb said the largest group of patients appears to be using marijuana to treat intractable pain. This is used as a catch-all category defined as pain caused by a chronic or debilitating disease that has not responded to medical treatments for more than six months.
Cobb said applications have come from all regions of the state, and that 60 state physicians have provided recommendations for their patients. “A lot of people felt that physicians wouldn’t be certifying folks,” she said.
Most applications are approved, according to officials, but some were rejected because the applicant was not a Maine resident or cited a medical problem such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which is not on Maine’s list of qualifying conditions, according to Thiele.
The last-minute rush of applications means the health department won’t get cards to every patient immediately after January 1, Thiele said.
The Maine Attorney General’s Office has warned police agencies that there’s a backlog, and that some legal medical marijuana patients may not be able to show a registration card if found to be in possession of marijuana in January. It is advising law enforcement officers to call the DHHS to check if an application is pending in such cases.
The A.G.’s office has also been helping police prepare for the new rules, which limit registered patients to possession of no more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana and up to six plants, only three of which may be mature, flowering plants.
|Photo: Kevin Bennett|
|Jonathan Leavitt, Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine: “We’re all going to continue the fight to repeal that mandatory registration requirement”|
Some patients and caregivers have been reluctant to put their names on a state registry, arguing that it violates their privacy rights or that it could get them in trouble with federal drug agents (the federal government doesn’t recognize any medical uses for marijuana).
“I think a lot of people are a little bit wary,” said Jonathan Leavitt, a patient and caregiver who led the referendum drive in 2009 and now leads a trade group called Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. “We’re all going to continue to fight to repeal that mandatory registration requirement.”
Leavitt said the registration requirement is just one of many rules imposed after the 2009 referendum that advocates hope to overturn in the Legislature in 2011. In the meantime, he said, there are many patients and caregivers who have not registered with the state.
Under the current rules, patients will need to have registration cards to buy cannabis from one of the state’s yet-to-open medical marijuana dispensaries.
In southern Maine, Portland and Biddeford are ready for dispensaries, although the operators there are still months away from opening and have not even begun growing marijuana. Dispensary operators need three months or more to grow enough mature marijuana to open for business.
Operators working to open dispensaries in Ellsworth and Frenchville are the farthest along, and have begun growing plants after getting state approval for cultivation facilities and security plans. Operators of both dispensaries said they plan to open in March or April.