Ron Fousek of South Berwick recently filed paperwork for his nonprofit, Green Relief MD, and is waiting for the state Legislature to release an implementation plan for the state’s recently approved medical marijuana dispensaries.

“There are people who need medical marijuana but can’t cultivate it themselves. They’re incapacitated or don’t have the time. We’d be stepping in to fill that role,” he said.

Maine decriminalized marijuana for medical purposes in 1999. Last November, voters approved Ballot Question 5, which expanded the list of approved conditions and stipulated provisions for a patient registry and for the operation of nonprofit dispensaries.

Two days after the vote, Gov. John Baldacci established, by executive order, a task force to figure out how to implement the new statute.

Last month the task force returned with recommendations covering everything from agricultural concerns — “The process of cleaning, sorting, grading, weighing and packaging medical marijuana cannot be that much different from that undergone by ready-to-eat salad greens,” reads one section — to weights and measures, where the task force found parallels in the wood and blueberry industries.

The group studied implementation in the 13 other states that currently allow medical marijuana use, and concluded the year-old statute and rules in New Mexico aligned most closely with Maine’s goals.

The report is not explicit about what is meant by the comparison. New Mexico’s regulations, however, are among the most comprehensive of the states that allow medical marijuana use.

But many of the larger issues surrounding implementation were left unresolved, including the cost of the program and the level of fees to be assessed in order to pay for what the task force stressed should be a self-funding program. Also left unresolved were the number and location of dispensaries and a timeline for implementation. The task force recommended these questions be taken up by the Legislature.

“The $64,000 question today is, when do you think this will be up and running?” said John Martins, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “I’d say the earliest would be mid to late spring.”

Fousek posed a different question. “Where are we allowed to pull seeds from? We can all order from Amsterdam and get the seeds in the mail, but that’s the gray area with respect to the law,” he said.

Fousek said he has grown marijuana in the past, but not on a large scale. His interest is less evangelical than practical. “Maine is hurting for jobs,” he said. “I got laid off last year and I thought I’d do this. … I get to help out in the community. I get to draw a salary. And I get to be part of the medical marijuana movement.”

As the implementation plan unfolds a number of parties are either preparing to take advantage of the new legislation or taking steps to protect themselves.

To date, five Maine municipalities, Auburn, Brewer, Ellsworth, Houlton and South Portland, have enacted or are in the process of enacting moratoriums on issuing permits for medical marijuana dispensaries. Bangor is in the process of reviewing its zoning ordinances with dispensaries in mind.

Jonathan Leavitt of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative, the official proponent of the ballot measure, was quoted in the Morning Sentinel as saying he had received “hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and e-mails,” from people asking about setting up dispensaries. Leavitt did not immediately respond to an inquiry from VillageSoup.

The Maine Department of Agriculture has also reported inquiries from farmers interested in growing marijuana to sell to dispensaries.

Despite growing acceptance of marijuana’s medicinal uses, the plant remains a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that, as far as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is concerned, it has no accepted medical benefits and is regarded as unsafe even under medical supervision. The designation means marijuana cannot be sold in pharmacies.

By allowing dedicated dispensaries, states have been able to circumvent the federal restrictions. The Obama administration has said it will cease to raid medical marijuana dispensaries, but growing, possession and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes is still considered by many to be a gray area of the law.

Jenna Forehand of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., who responded to an inquiry made by VillageSoup on an online cannabis forum, said she has long been aware of marijuana’s medicinal properties. Her knowledge was anecdotal, until recently, when a ski accident left her with a proximal humerus fracture, meaning the ball of the ball-and-socket joint in her shoulder broke off. “At any given time, I can [get a prescription for] a massive amount of Vicodin or any other pain medication, but, unfortunately, I can’t operate that way,” she said.

The complaint is common among medical marijuana patients. Painkillers and opiates dull the senses, they say. Marijuana, by contrast, eases the pain without the sedating effect.

Forehand had ready access to marijuana because she grows it, for herself and others, and has for 15 years. Both she and her husband grew up around marijuana-growing. Forehand’s parents were small-time growers; her husband grew up in Humboldt County around large-scale growing operations. The coastal county in Northern California is renowned for the production of high-grade marijuana. “He grew up hiding from helicopters,” she said.

South Lake Tahoe she described as “a mini-Humboldt County,” with a large population of young growers. Despite living in one of the more marijuana-friendly parts of the first state in the union to pass medical marijuana legislation, the couple is considering moving to another state, preferably one that is where California was several years ago, with regard to marijuana legislation.

Sitting roughly where California was in 2004, Maine is one such place.

California’s Senate Bill 420 took effect in January 2004. Before S.B. 420, Californians with medical conditions benefiting from the therapeutic and palliative properties of marijuana could use the drug and cultivate the plants for their own use, but the law did not specify how many plants a patient could grow and included no provision for patients who couldn’t grow their own. S.B. 420 specified how many plants could be grown, and granted implied legal protections to dispensaries.

The permitting of dispensaries was left to municipalities, and in areas with relaxed permitting standards the storefront dispensaries proliferated like wildflowers. The topic gained notoriety last year when NPR’s Richard Gonzales reported that in Los Angeles, Starbucks and McDonalds were outnumbered by pot dispensaries “at least two-to-one.”

A January article in the Denver Post made a similar claim for Colorado’s capital city, dubbing it “America’s Cannabis Capital.”

Forehand figures half of the 800 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles are run by gangs. Meanwhile, houses are going up in flames, she said, as novice growers seeking to exploit the new market underestimate the electricity and heat required to grow marijuana indoors.

“It’s out of control here, basically,” she said.

Forehand said she’s hoping to talk with city and town officials in Maine to caution them against implementing the kind of loose regulatory oversight that has undermined the medical marijuana movement in some parts of her own state.

“I don’t want to see another place end up like California,” she said.

Back in South Berwick, Fousek was more optimistic. “This isn’t California; this isn’t Colorado,” he said. “If the dispensaries present themselves as legitimate businesses, it will be all right. If someone starts pumping out prescriptions, that’s going to be a problem.”

Fousek continued, “Unfortunately, because of California and Colorado, people start seeing dollar signs when you talk about medical marijuana.”

filed under: