A group of medical marijuana providers, customers and other interested parties pushed back against making any major changes to the state’s medical cannabis program in a report presented Monday to a legislative committee.

A bill approved by the Maine Legislature in 2021 overhauled the medical marijuana rulemaking process and halted a set of controversial proposed regulations by the state Office of Marijuana Policy, instead requiring input from an industry-led rulemaking committee before making major changes to the medical marijuana program. 

The medical marijuana workgroup, which convened in the fall, was headed by the policy office and included 17 members from across the industry: six registered small providers, known in the industry as caregivers; two registered dispensary representatives; a cannabis testing facility representative; a product manufacturer; three qualifying medical cannabis patients who are not also caregivers; two municipal officials and two health care professionals with relevant expertise. 

The group was tasked with developing steps to help streamline the licensing and compliance process “to ensure the medical-use program is fulfilling the hallmarks of a regulated industry.”

In its five meetings, the group focused on topics including patient access and medical cannabis testing, Erik Gundersen, director of the Office of Marijuana Policy, said in a virtual presentation to the Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs. The group roundly rejected the policy office’s previously proposed requirement that the medical market adopt a “track-and-trace” product tracking system.

Mark Barnett, owner of Higher Grounds, a combination medical cannabis retail store and coffee shop in the Old Port, and chair of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, said he appreciated that Gundersen and the policy office were willing to listen to the industry after what he said was a combative legislative session with a lot of negative feelings and distrust.

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“I did really appreciate … the credence and recognition it seems like the office is finally giving to the industry that it regulates,” Barnett said.

Still, he criticized officials for pushing track-and-trace and a mandatory testing policy, both of which he said the industry has shown it does not support.

The state’s medical marijuana program consists of 13 dispensaries, approximately 3,000 registered caregivers and more than 100,000 qualifying patients. In 2020, medical marijuana sales totaled approximately $290 million, according to the report. More recent figures were not immediately available.

In January 2021, the Office of Marijuana Policy released a preliminary draft of rule changes to the medical program that officials said were “meant to align the program with state law.”

Among other proposed changes, including strict security and surveillance measures, the proposed rules would have required all registered medical cannabis caregivers, dispensaries and manufacturing facilities to implement a track-and-trace system identical to the one currently used in Maine’s recreational cannabis program.

That would require medical providers to track all marijuana plants or harvested marijuana daily from “immature plant” to point of sale or disposal. The goal of track-and-trace is to record all product movement through the supply chain to identify the source of products found to be contaminated or illicit.

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PUSHING BACK

For months, caregivers pushed back against the proposal, worried that track-and-trace and other rules would be too expensive and would wipe out the industry.

But opponents of the bill argued that the state’s medical marijuana sellers no longer represent a cottage industry and should be subject to more regulations and stronger safeguards for patients trying to access medicine.

Months later, track-and-trace remains a point of disagreement between the regulators and the industry.

“Understanding that inventory tracking was one of the most contentious aspects of (the policy office’s) 2021 proposed medical marijuana rulemaking, the office provided a limited tracking proposal to the Medical Marijuana Workgroup for consideration,” the office wrote in the report. 

In its proposal, only registered dispensaries, caregivers operating a retail store and registered marijuana testing facilities would be required to use state track-and-trace contractor Metrc, and others would be able to do so voluntarily. The agency estimated that the mandate would apply to 300-400 of the roughly 3,100 registrants. 

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“The consensus of the group was that (medical program) participants should not be required to use Metrc,” the report said. 

Some agreed there should be some form of record keeping, and one alternative proposal included a form of tracking at the batch level, as opposed to tracking individual plants from seed to sale. 

OPPOSED TO ELECTRONIC TRACKING

Others remained opposed to any electronic tracking. 

According to the report, the Office of Marijuana Policy will not propose rules including the use of Metrc, the tracking service currently used by the adult-use program, despite its continued belief in the value of a track-and-trace system. 

Barnett said he was glad to see the group so soundly rejected track-and-trace, which he called an “overbearing Big Brother data Hoover.”

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“That kind of draconian, drug war, anti-crime approach to cannabis regulation has no place in our society,” he said, adding that it should be done away with in the adult-use program as well.

L.D. 1242, one of the bills that necessitated the working group, also requires that before implementing a statewide electronic portal for caregiver businesses, the department must use existing resources to study the economic effects that any new rules or changes may have and how they may impact patient access to medical marijuana. 

It also required that officials use existing resources to conduct a study evaluating the economic effects that any new rules or proposed changes may have.

The marijuana policy office also recommended that the Legislature implement a “mandatory testing regime” for the program, despite a lack of agreement from the working group.

Testing is currently mandated in the adult-use program, but not in the medical program.

The group considered several options, according to the report, including a testing program similar to the office’s tracking proposal, which would only impact the commercial entities such as storefronts and dispensaries. Another option was a voluntary testing program that would introduce labeling of products that have not been tested.

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However, the working group was unable to reach a consensus.

TESTING ALSO AN ISSUE

Some agreed that as medical cannabis is medicine, it should be tested. Others argued that as an agricultural product, it shouldn’t.

According to the report, “most members appeared to support some form of testing if it could be done in a manner that minimized the impact on price.”

“The extent to which mandatory testing may be introduced to a program which has not previously required it will be an important policy discussion to undertake,” officials noted in the report.

Other recommendations to the committee included allowing medical marijuana cardholders to present an electronic copy of their certification instead of the hard copy requirement currently in place and revising the pediatric patient certification process to be more inclusive and more closely align with the process for adults.

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Some recommendations were less geared toward action from the Legislature than toward future considerations for the office or lawmakers moving forward.

For example, the workgroup unanimously decided that patient confidentiality should remain a priority when future regulatory or statutory changes are considered. 

Additionally, the office recommended that as the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs revisits the statutes, “it should continue to prioritize patient access, keeping medical cannabis affordable, and maintaining or strengthening the relationship between a medical provider and the patient they are serving.”

Following Monday’s presentation, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will examine the industry group’s report and consider how to move forward with potential legislation.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, to reflect that the industry group did not recommend any specific new rules.


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