The Maine Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee (VLA) voted today to delay consideration of two closely watched bills (LD.1242 and LD.1319) that would pause the roll out of a controversial set of proposed changes to the state's medical cannabis program, leaving local advocates hopeful that the extra time will put more pressure on the Committee Co-Chairs (Rep. Chris Caiazzo and Sen. Louis Luchini) to support the proposals.
Unanimous support from the VLA Committee is needed, explained Chairperson of The Maine Cannabis Coalition Susan Meehan, because both bills face a near guaranteed veto from the state's Governor, Janet Mills.
Speaking to me in an interview after Monday's work session, Meehan said;
"We are very concerned about the prospect of LD.1242 and LD.1319 being passed out of committee with a split report. If that happens, we are quite worried about a veto from the Governor which we feel is likely. If, however, there is a unanimous VLA vote in support of either LD.1242 or LD.1319 that makes it much more likely that the House or Senate will vote to override a potential veto. That exact situation happened, in 2015, in fact."
Both bill LD.1242 (and a similar bill, LD.1319) became of increasing importance to over the past few months as advocates quickly came to realize that the changes proposed to the medical cannabis program in Maine had the potential to shutter thousands of local mom and pop operators. LD.1242 would, among other changes, force the state's Office of Marijuana Policy (OMP) to restart its rulemaking process in order to take into consideration the input of local stakeholders.
The rule changes OMP is attempting to put forward at the moment, those caregivers say, were drafted without their input and withheld from public view until the very end of the process.
So desperate was the situation that, in the lead up to Monday's hearing, grassroots advocates pleaded with supporters and members of the public to reach out to Caiazzo and Luchini to ask them to vote in support of HD. 1242 this week.
""Keeping up the calls, emails and general public pressure on the chairmen is crucial; the most viable threat we have is to primary these chairs, and thus it is crucial that they realize constituents from their district are watching this issue, and will be casting their vote based on the way 1242 and 1319 are handled," Meehan explained.
Local caregivers like Meehan have been locked in a years long battle against giant corporate operators, such as Curaleaf, who have openly testified (via attorneys) on multiple occasions against bill LD.1242. That MSO's such as Curaleaf would openly use their deep pockets to lobby against a bill like LD. 1242, apparently because less medical caregivers in Maine would mean more profits for corporate operators in the state, reflects the very worst form of corporate greed.
A number of potential amendments to LD.1242 were proposed by co-chair Sen. Louis Lucini (including a delay on track and trace requirements for home based caregivers until June of 2022), which he called a "backstop in the event we do not have broad support to [put the new rule changes on hold]."
Those amendments, however, were a non-starter for advocates. Said Meehan after the amendments were previewed, "there is no way we will consider this amendment, as it will put METRC into statute and that is really the hill we are fighting on as under the current law OMP can only track product transfers (rather than seed to sale). Therefore, anything that attempts to put seed to sale in tracking [the 5 grassroots advocacy organizations in Maine] will oppose summarily."
METRC is a private company that provides seed to sale tracking options for larger commercial operators, and, charge local advocates, forcing smaller independent operators to adhere to seed to sale tracking would put hundreds of those companies into bankruptcy and cost the state thousands of jobs.
Committee members feel the heat of public input
"We have all received a number of emails and comments about this issue", said another member of the committee, Sen. Brad Ferrin, referring to the ongoing outreach campaign being run by grassroots advocates and caregivers that certainly had an impact on lawmakers.
The proposed rule changes being pushed by OMP, local caregivers say, would shut down over 80% of existing mom and pop operators in Maine, in turn leading to catastrophic job losses and a substantial decrease in access to reasonably priced cannabis medicine for the most vulnerable patients in the state.
As a result, those rules have been met with ferocious backlash from the state's 3,500+ strong network of mom and pop medical cannabis caregivers.
"I think the relationship between the industry and regulators is, right now, unsustainable and that, by bringing people together, we will hopefully be able to get people to a place that is acceptable", said Chairman Lucini at Monday's VLA work session.
Months of impassioned pleas
In an emotional day of testimony on bill LD.1242 and LD. 1319 last month, compounded by the agonizing absence of longtime grassroots activist Dawson Julia, members of the VLA Committee heard over nine hours of public input on the proposed bill to put a halt to that controversial update to the existing medical cannabis rules in the state.
Julia, the first owner of a medical cannabis caregiver store in Maine and an integral voice in the state's expansive advocacy community for over a decade, is fighting for his life in a Miami-area hospital following a tragic moped accident two weeks ago -- leading lawmakers and members of the public alike to express emotional well wishes and tributes throughout the day's proceedings.
Not only was the process used by OMP to solicit input on those new rules fundamentally broken, charged advocates, but the rules themselves pose huge challenges to smaller operators.
Arleigh Kraus, a registered caregiver from Warren, Maine and a member of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, told me last month that she felt the process used to draft the new proposed rules was fundamentally unfair and that lawmakers were left with no choice but to put a temporary pause on the rulemaking process to avoid the wanton destruction of a thriving local cottage industry that employs tends of thousands of Mainers.
"I do not think the rule making process has been fair whatsoever. To overload people in the industry with a bunch of rule changes which are clearly not routine technical changes and then to put the burden on us to tease out the economic foundation for these rules, while getting nothing from the department...is deeply concerning."
Some caregivers, in recent months, have said openly that those new regulatory burdens would put them out of business.
Donald Gardner, a local caregiver from Knox County, Maine, told the OMP in testimony last month that "the over intensity of these proposed regulations" would "hinder the very existence" of his small business.
"I cannot emphasize the word over-burdensome enough", said Gardner in an impassioned voice, "[these proposed regulations] will be the end of my business. It is that simple. And I won't be the only one. I am genuinely terrified of these new changes. I simply won't be able to do this anymore if you pass these regulations and I will be in the unemployment line".
Among other changes, the updated rules would "require all registered medical cannabis caregivers, dispensaries and manufacturing facilities to implement a “seed-to-sale” or “track-and-trace” system" along with expensive security measures, including 24-hour camera surveillance and an alarm system for every provider. Surveillance data must be stored for 30 days."
Some of those issues were addressed by the amendments to bill LD.1242 by Chair Luchini, an overview of which can be found in the image below;