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Lawmakers Propose Changes to Maine's Medical Marijuana Law
05/14/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A legislative panel is reviewing a half-dozen bills aimed at tweaking Maine's medicinal marijuana law, which now governs how the drug is prescribed and distributed to about 10,000 Mainers. One bill sets new fees for medical marijuana dispensaries. Another would increase the allowed number of dispensaries from the current limit of 8. And one proposal would essentially permit a doctor to prescribe marijuana for almost any ailment. A.J. Higgins has more.

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After sustaining a back injury in 2006, Corey Belcher had every intention of following his doctor's orders that included prescriptions for oxycontin, fentenyl and an array of other pain killers. But Belcher says the combination would make it hard for him to stay awake behind his steering wheel on the drive home to Bristol. Finally, Belcher says he was able to get a prescription for medicinal marijuana. And he says it changed his life.

"Now for 16 months, I haven't had a single pill, patch or anything," Belcher said. "It's all been thankful to medical marijuana, my caregivers who have looked out for me. It's medicine. It's given me life back. It's given me my family back."

Belcher's endorsement of marijuana as a medical wonder drug was a common theme during a public hearing on several medicinal pot bills before the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee. And many of those speaking to lawmakers heavily favored a bill that adds a whole new range of medical conditions that would qualify for treatment with medical marijuana.

Sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Dickerson, a Rockland Democrat, the bill states simply that in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, opiate or pharmaceutical drug addiction and recovery, any other medical condition as determined by a physician would qualify for a patient for a medicinal marijuana prescription.

Tim Smale, of the Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn, says there are currently fewer than 10 conditions for which doctors in Maine can prescribe marijuana.

"Maine is a very, very restrictive state in terms of its conditions," Smale said. "It's the most restrictive state, as a matter of fact, of all the medical marijuana states. And what we find is that medical marijuana is very helpful in other conditions, and this is borne out by medical science. So we're not really introducing anything new here, we're just learning from those other states that have those conditions that are able to help people."

Dr. Dustin Sulak, an osteopathic physician and medical director for two practices in Manchester and Falmouth, told committee members that he has watched patients who had not responded to other drugs begin to thrive while being treated with marijuana.

"We see substantial improvements in our patients using cannabis," Sulak said. "Every day my colleagues and I see results that are uncommon in typical conventional medical practices. We see the toughest cases that have been refractery to other treatments getting better with an herb that is much safer than those other treatments."

But representatives of Maine's medical and licensing establishment do not share those views. Jessa Barnard represents the Maine Medical Association.

"Our members have stated that the current list of conditions already covers the vast majority of cases where evidence supports the use," Barnard said. "In fact, many of them feel that the list may even be too broad, and they chose for diverse reasons not to recommend the use of marijuana to patients."

Barnard joined Kenneth Albert, director of licensing and regulatory services at the state Department of Health and Human Services in opposing the expansion of prescribed conditions for medical marijuana. Albert testified that the bill would essentially render meaningless the list of conditions under current law.

That also troubles Barnard, who says many Maine physicians worry that the changes amount to approving the de facto use of the drug for recreational purposes.

"They're concerned especially under section 1G of the bill, allowing marijuana to be used for any other medical condition or its treatment as determined by a physician, will open the floodgates of patients seeking physicians to sign off on marijuana use for recreational purposes," Barnard said.

As Barnard was discussing the bill with lawmakers, another measure to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes use was rejected 8-3 by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.



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