AUGUSTA — The state forced the closure of an outdoor vape tent for patients at a popular medical marijuana trade show this weekend, abruptly ending a seven-year practice embraced by both patients and vendors.

The tobacco enforcement coordinator of the Maine Attorney General’s Office cited state anti-smoking and marijuana laws in its May 26 warning email to Home Grown Maine, the trade show that opened its two-day run at the Augusta Civic Center on Saturday.

The trade show’s parent organization, Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, agreed to cancel the tent despite its belief that it has a right to operate the tent, said director Catherine Lewis. The cancellation prompted a small, spontaneous protest outside the venue.

“This is out of the blue,” Lewis said. “We’ve had a lot of disappointed people. It will hurt ticket sales. It will be harder for us to get vendors next year. But the worst thing is we have patients who rely on us for pain relief who suddenly can’t take their medicine.”

Lewis believes the coordinator’s order discriminates against medical marijuana patients, many of whom relied on the tent to medicate while attending or working at one of the 80 booths that lined the civic center’s trade show floor.

The vape tent would have been set up on a side lawn at the venue, the same place it was last year. The lawn is farther away from the civic center than the area where people are still allowed to smoke tobacco cigarettes, beyond the marked no-smoking area.

“It’s OK for me to take a few steps outside and smoke a cigarette, which is something that we all know can kill me, but I can’t take my medicine,” said Marc Leighton, who started using cannabis about 18 months ago to wean himself off opiates. “That’s crazy.”

The rented tent is enclosed, with side flaps that shield inside activities from public view, Lewis said. The rules prohibit anyone but card-carrying medical patients from entry and banned all commercial transactions, but product giveaways often occurred.

Just as it always does, the group noted its plan to set up an outdoor vape tent for patients in this year’s rental application, Lewis said. The venue, the Augusta Civic Center, approved the group’s application without raising any concerns about the tent.

On May 26, one week before the trade show was to commence, the tobacco enforcement coordinator sent the email informing Home Grown Maine that smoking is banned on the civic center grounds. Vaping is classified as smoking under state law, the email said.

State marijuana laws prohibit the public consumption of marijuana, the email also noted.

The coordinator, Amber Desrosiers, said the office’s concern was prompted by a public complaint filed after the trade show advertised the free vape tent in a local newspaper, the email said.

Around lunchtime on Saturday, a small group of people who had come to the show expecting to be able to use vaporizers to consume medical marijuana staged a small, unscheduled protest when they learned there was no vape tent.

The protesters, including Leighton, lit up marijuana cigarettes and waited for police to show up so they could register their civic disobedience, but no one came. Civic center security did not interfere, nor did any of the plainclothes law enforcement officers at the show.

“It was certainly awkward for us, a pro-marijuana group, having to ask our patients to stop using marijuana at our show, but that’s what we did,” Lewis said. “We really hope we don’t have to do that again next year. We are appealing the decision.”

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