AUGUSTA — The economic and political tensions within Maine’s thriving medical marijuana industry were on full display Friday as patients, suppliers and regulators sparred over proposals by the LePage administration to add teeth to rules governing marijuana caregivers.

In a sweeping set of proposals released this week, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to limit the amount of marijuana that caregivers can distribute to patients, allow the department to investigate caregiver operations and stiffen penalties for violations.

The proposal also would require caregivers — individuals permitted to grow and dispense medical marijuana to up to five clients — who cultivate marijuana for family members to register with the state.

While representatives for larger, more tightly regulated marijuana dispensaries praised the proposals as “leveling the playing field,” caregivers and patients decried the proposals as regulatory overreach. Opponents also blasted DHHS officials for introducing them so late in the legislative session and without consulting the caregiver community.

“Caregivers are farmers, running small businesses, serving sick people. We are not criminals,” said Steve Ruhl, a caregiver and board member of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine.

Maine is among a handful of states that operate a regulated system allowing patients certified by doctors to use medical marijuana to obtain the drug. The system, endorsed by voters in a 2009 ballot initiative, is structured around two types of suppliers: eight tightly regulated dispensaries that can grow pot for an unlimited number of patients, and smaller but less-regulated caregivers restricted to growing for five patients at a time. Caregivers supply an estimated 70 percent of the medical pot in Maine.

However, the two-tiered system — with eight larger dispensaries competing against an estimated 1,700 caregivers — inevitably has led to friction within the industry.

Caregivers have portrayed dispensaries as corporate operatives, while dispensary operators bemoan the fact that they are subjected to much higher scrutiny and regulation than caregivers who are largely flying “under the radar.”

“The bottom line is, we are operating on an unlevel playing field with caregivers,” said Laura Harper, a lobbyist with the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators.

DHHS and law enforcement officials also have raised concerns that some caregivers are selling their goods illegally to nonpatients.

The friction between the two sides of the industry and state regulators came to a head last month when DHHS hired former law enforcement officers to investigate complaints against caregivers. The caregiving community responded with alarm, saying DHHS overstepped its authority by implementing an inspection program without going through the public rulemaking process.

The DHHS bill considered on Friday, L.D. 1392, aims to resolve any uncertainty about whether the department even has the authority to conduct periodic inspections and testing of caregiver operations and dispensaries. The bill also would set fines of $200 to $500 a day for civil violations of the law and fines of up to $1,000 a day for failing to register with the state as a primary caregiver.

Bill sponsor Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, raised concerns about some aspects of the department’s bill — including the process of fining or penalizing caregivers — but supports giving the department “the teeth and the ability” to force compliance with the law.

“I think it is a good program, but I think more oversight of this program will only make it better,” Sanderson told her colleagues on the Health and Human Services Committee. “The vast majority of individuals who operate under this program are doing so legally, but we do have some that are not, and they are taking advantage of it. And that shines a pall on those who are operating legally.”

Opponents shared a long list of concerns with the committee, beginning with how the lengthy bill was printed only days before the public hearing.

However, caregiver Garry Robitaille, of Growing Compassion, said DHHS never mentioned the department’s plans to hire contractors to investigate complaints during three meetings of a joint department-caregiver forum that the Legislature created to improve communication. He and others accused the department of never seriously engaging the caregiver community in conversation about addressing the abuses of the few that threaten to mar the reputation of the entire industry.

“This (bill) today is more of a power grab than regulation,” Robitaille said.

Other speakers were upset about potential restrictions on caregivers’ ability to donate excess marijuana to patients who are not their clients, a new limit of 2.5 ounces per patient every 15 days, and the requirement that caregivers register with the state if they are growing marijuana for a family member who is certified to use the drug.

Samantha Brown, a Berwick mother who uses cannabis therapy to treat her 3-year-old daughter’s severe seizures, said preventing donations will make it harder for some patients to obtain the medicine. She also raised concerns that the new DHHS registration and inspection requirements could make it too costly for her to serve as her daughter’s caregiver.

“Thank you, but these regulations are not required to protect my child. I will,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana dispensary operators asked lawmakers to expand Sanderson’s bill to allow them to operate as for-profit companies rather than nonprofits. Such a move would put dispensaries on par with caregivers, they said.

“It is unfair to hold one side of the market to a different standard than the other,” said Tim Smale, owner of Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn and president of the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators.

Earlier this year, four caregivers filed suit against DHHS in Kennebec County Superior Court, claiming department officials had failed to follow the proper administrative process when they created an online system for issuing medical marijuana certificates. Critics also raised concerns about whether any online registration system could expose patients or caregivers to hackers.

In an effort to address some of those concerns, committee members later Friday endorsed an amended version of a separate bill, L.D. 560, stipulating DHHS cannot require health care providers to send personally identifiable information about qualified medical marijuana patients over the Internet.

The committee is expected to work on the DHHS bill at a later date.

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