The legislative committee that oversees Maine’s medical marijuana program wants to suspend controversial new rules cracking down on caregivers.

The state Department of Health and Human Services finalized the rules last year and is scheduled to implement them on Feb. 1, but the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee wants to put those rules on hold while it considers new legislation that may nullify some or all of them. On Thursday, the committee voted 12-0 in favor of a bill that would delay implementation until July, which is when bills drafted this session would go into effect.

The full Legislature could vote on the medical rules moratorium bill as early as Tuesday, but even if it sailed through both houses, it would still require approval from Gov. Paul LePage before it goes into effect. LePage’s approval is far from guaranteed, and it could take him as long as 10 days to decide whether he would sign it or not. If he vetoes it, which some committee members believe he will, the override attempt would eat up more time.

That means it is highly unlikely that the fate of the moratorium bill will be known before the new medical rules go into effect on Feb. 1. Committee members such as Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, asked DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton to delay implementation until the moratorium bill can go to a full vote in the Legislature, or until the committee develops its own legislative reforms, but Hamilton has yet to reply.

“We are looking at a situation where the rules will be in effect before we get the moratorium in place,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the committee’s Senate chairman.

The rules could send Maine’s medical marijuana industry – whose taxed sales in 2016 were estimated to top $53.5 million – into a tailspin, especially its fast-growing network of licensed medical marijuana caregivers, participants say. The rules will allow DHHS to conduct surprise inspections of caregiver growing operations and short-notice inspection of some patient growers and prohibit the resale of donated marijuana, which could turn testing labs and those that make edibles, tinctures and oils into outlaws.

Some of the owners of the labs that test and do the extraction work for Maine’s caregiver community – the state’s eight licensed medical marijuana dispensaries test and perform extractions in house now – have told caregivers they plan to shut down when the new rules go into effect to avoid possible regulatory penalties or referrals to law enforcement. No Maine lab owner was willing to discuss their business plans Thursday, but several confirmed closure plans off the record.

With that in mind, the committee voted Thursday to skip the public hearing on a moratorium to minimize the potential disruption to Maine’s medical marijuana industry. It didn’t sit well with Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, the committee’s House chairman. She said it wasn’t fair to erase DHHS rules without giving the agency the “dignity” of explaining its reasoning at a hearing.

“I don’t want to step on their toes,” Hymanson said. “They deserve to tell us. We deserve to hear their message before we rewrite rules they’ve already thought about.”

Both DHHS’s Hamilton and LePage believe the medical marijuana program is flawed. On Jan. 12, Hamilton sent a letter to the committee saying it lacks enough oversight, administrative authority and resources, and that bills pending before the committee only begin to “scratch the surface of needed reform.” LePage cited the unchecked growth of the caregiver network when he vetoed the adult-use marijuana bill last year.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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