AUGUSTA — Medical marijuana advocates are blasting a new state inspection procedure that they say hasn’t been fully developed and may not have been implemented legally.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services in March signed a one-year, $167,000 contract with the Maine Sheriff’s Association to hire four inspectors who will investigate complaints about caregivers, who can grow marijuana for up to five patients. The patients must be directed to caregivers by doctors who sign a certificate, similar to a prescription, for patients who need marijuana to help treat a medical condition or alleviate the symptoms of a condition.

There are more than 1,700 caregivers scattered throughout Maine, and many grow marijuana at their homes, presenting a challenge for the state to regulate them. However, the state’s existing rules don’t outline an inspection process.

There are rules on their operations, however, and DHHS said the new inspectors will be used to investigate complaints about growers violating the rules — primarily caregivers, according to David Sorenson, the department’s spokesman.

Paul McCarrier, a caregiver advocate and president of Legalize Maine, a marijuana legalization effort, said the inspection program doesn’t appear to have been adopted through the normal rule-making process, raising questions about its validity. He also said caregivers haven’t been officially informed of the new inspection program and there are other questions that DHHS hasn’t addressed.

For instance, the inspections are voluntary. If a caregiver refuses to allow an inspector in, DHHS is supposed to be notified, but there’s no clear direction on what happens next, McCarrier said.

McCarrier said the inspections also put caregivers in a difficult position, because there are limits on who they can allow in to their growing operations. He said the inspectors, who are former police officers, don’t have any special policing authority and the sheriff’s association is a non-profit that is not a state agency. Inspectors will carry business cards identifying themselves, but not badges.

King Bishop, a caregiver from Morrill, didn’t know the inspections were happening until inspectors Matthew Clark and Mark Desjardin showed up at his door last month.

Bishop said they were polite and asked legitimate questions, but they didn’t have IDs other than business cards and he wasn’t sure what to make of their role in the program.

“I didn’t know what my rights were,” he said. “I didn’t know what powers DHHS had given them.”

McCarrier said that’s what worries him about the program.

“I basically want to make sure that everybody feels safe and everybody feels that this is going to be a professional relationship between a regulatory agency and a small business,” McCarrier said.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, who negotiated the contract with the state, said the inspectors will work 60 hours per month each. Liberty said the inspectors are plain-clothed, unarmed and ask for voluntary consent to inspect operations.

Liberty conceded that there are questions about the inspections, calling it an “ever-evolving” program.

Early inspections, he said, are “going to be much different from the 50th one we do and we’re learning as we go, also.”

“I think they’re doing very well now,” Liberty said. “These are very tenured investigators — very smart guys — and they’ll pick (it) up quickly.”

Under the contract, the department is responsible for training investigators on state laws and rules. For example, caregivers can cultivate no more than six plants for every patient and assist no more than five patients at a time and rules ban most pesticide use on plants.

The contract says complaints will be reviewed by DHHS, and officials will decide further action. If they do, they’ll be referred to the investigators, who must start investigating within 48 hours and finish reviews in two weeks. They must send weekly progress reports to the department, which will decide to resolve complaints.

Marietta D’Agostino, who runs the medical marijuana program for DHHS, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ed Murphy contributed to this story.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

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Twitter: @mikeshepherdme