Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a medical cannabis bill Friday that would allow doctors to certify patient use for any medical reason.

In a veto letter fired off late Friday afternoon, LePage, a staunch marijuana opponent, ticked off 11 reasons why he was vetoing the sweeping reform bill, ranging from complaints about the establishment of a medical marijuana research fund to licensing of dangerous extraction laboratories, noting his list of complaints was by no means exhaustive.

The reform bill, which was held over to last week’s special legislative session, was the Legislature’s bid to tackle longstanding problems in the medical use of marijuana program, which has undergone significant changes only twice since it was established in 1999. Maine has 42,000 certified medical marijuana patients.

The legislation would allow doctors to certify a patient to get a medical marijuana card for any therapeutic or palliative use that doctor deems appropriate. It effectively eliminates the state list of qualifying conditions – ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to AIDS and prolonged untreatable pain to Alzheimer’s disease – that must be met to get a medical card under current law.

This change grew out of lawmakers’ desire to allow doctors to certify marijuana use for treatment of opiate addiction.

The bill now goes to the Legislature for override consideration. It is difficult to predict whether supporters will have the votes needed to override LePage. After a series of political delays, in which both parties traded votes on various bills that remained on the table, lawmakers conducted a series of mostly voice votes to send the medical cannabis reform bill to the Blaine House.

But Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the co-chairman of the legislative committee that wrote the medical marijuana reform bill, predicts the bills will have the two-thirds support needed to override a veto.

“These bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate,” Brakey said. An override, he said, would “increase the choice for patients and legal businesses, while increasing the integrity of our medical cannabis program.”

OTHER CHANGES

The reform bill would allow Maine’s network of 3,000 registered caregivers to expand their business operations, allowing them to treat as many patients as they can from their limited harvest and hire as many employees as needed. Current law caps them at one worker and no more than five patients at a time. The bill also would officially sanction caregiver retail shops.

Mainers spent $24.5 million at state medical marijuana dispensaries in 2017. Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a trade group that represents the caregiving community, believes that patients spent about as much buying medicine from a caregiver, which would bring industry revenue to $50 million a year, but state tax records do not track caregiver sales as a group.

LePage complained that the caregiver shop provisions of the bill would establish caregivers in the retail marketplace before adult use has even been launched. While the adult-use program establishes a robust list of conditions that a retailer must meet to get a state license, the medical marijuana bill would allow caregivers to set up shop with no qualifications other than Maine residency, he said.

Such an expansion of medical retail operations would be better considered next session, once an adult-use program has been set up by the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services and policymakers could reflect on lessons learned from that roll out, LePage argued. The programs need to “coexist rather than cannabilize each other,” he said.

He urged lawmakers to consider standalone legislation that immediately brings more oversight to the medical program and caregivers.

Although the bill would have expanded caregiver powers, it would have saddled them with more state oversight, as well, including the unannounced inspections of their grow facilities, including cultivation operations that are run out of a caregiver’s home. Some smaller Maine caregiver operations see these home inspections as an invasion of their privacy, as well as that of their patients.

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But LePage argues the bill did not give the state enough additional authority or personnel to justify or manage this expansion of the medical program. The bill doesn’t give the state the power to drug test the additional employees allotted to caregivers, for example, or require caregivers to provide proof of sales tax registration before selling medical marijuana.

The bill should have expanded the kind of felony conviction that can disqualify someone from getting their caregiver card, he said. Like the current law, LePage said the bill he vetoed bans someone from caregiving if they have a felony drug conviction, but does not specifically address violent felons.

This leaves “patients vulnerable and the program open to potentially dangerous and violent criminals,” LePage wrote.

ADMINISTRATIVE CHANGES

The bill creates a significant new administrative burden on the medical program with only a modest increase in staffing to implement it, LePage said. It also makes tax changes that permit dispensaries and caregivers to expense their equipment costs, a costly deviation from current tax law that places Maine in conflict with the federal tax code, LePage said.

The reform bill also would license marijuana extraction facilities, which create the concentrates used to make salves, soils and edibles popular with those who do not want to smoke their medicine. LePage said these labs pose a significant public health risk because the extraction requires the use of inherently hazardous materials.

The processor section of the reform bill that LePage vetoed also was written as its own standalone emergency legislation, just in case the larger and more controversial medical marijuana reform bill were to fail, but LePage vetoed that bill on Friday as well. That veto was accompanied by a veto letter that was even more strongly worded than his reform bill veto.

“Lawmakers need only look at the recent incidents in Ellsworth and Biddeford for an example of just how dangerous it can be to extract marijuana concentrates with these materials,” he said, citing recent examples of illegal home labs. “Passing legislation that would permit newly established manufacturing facilities to conduct this same work in the absence of rule or certification is irresponsible.”

The legislation would permit the use of marijuana in any form, including potentially hazardous ways such as eye drops, injectables and tasteless powders that have become problems in other states, LePage said.

The Legislature plans to reconvene Monday to take up the vetoed bills.

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

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