In an emotional day of testimony on Friday, compounded by the agonizing absence of longtime grassroots activist Dawson Julia, the Maine Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee heard over nine hours of public input on two proposed bills that would put a halt to a controversial update to 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.
The two bills under consideration, LD.1319 and LD.1242, both seek to halt an ongoing rule making process related to the state's medical cannabis program.
Those new rules, being proposed by the Office of Marijuana Policy (OMP), have met with ferocious backlash from the state's 3,500+ strong network of mom and pop medical cannabis caregivers (including Julia himself) who say the changes favored by OMP officials would shut down over 80% of their ranks.
Not only was the process used by OMP to solicit input on those new rules fundamentally broken, charge advocates, but the rules themselves pose huge challenges to smaller operators.
One major change being considered in bill LD.1242 would reclassify changes to the state's medical cannabis rules from "routine technical" to "major substantive", something advocates say will help to prevent major upheaval under the auspices of "minor rule changes".
Arleigh Kraus, a registered caregiver from Warren, Maine and a member of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, explained that distinction to me in an interview Friday evening;
"Routine technical changes are typically used for anything to do with a state form. So, under my understanding, that means anything to do with filling out a form (or a change to something like that)", said Kraus. "In short, very minor changes."
But, Kraus went on, what OMP has done with its rule changes is something entirely different;
"Compare that to mandating security systems not required in law, or requiring METRC which is not required by law, or changing how patients get certified...all of those changes would have a huge impact on human beings and a routine technical process is not the way to make changes of that nature. Its for that reason that the request was made, via LD.1242, to classify such changes [to the medical cannabis program] as major substantive".
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."
Normally the financial impact of such rule changes on local cities and towns, along with their impact on small business (who employ less than 20 people), would need to be made public prior to any public hearings -- something that was not done in the case of the OMP process here.
The lack of that "fiscal impact note", say local advocates, is more than reason enough for lawmakers to mandate OMP re-do their rule making process and, this time, ensure a specific focus is put on ensuring input from local Maine residents when those rules are drafted.
OMP, for its part, told lawmakers at Friday's hearing that the fiscal impact note "would be published" before the new rules were made final.
That answer, however, did not seem to satisfy some on the Committee or members of the public -- who noted in a series of remarks that the inclusion of that fiscal impact note is not optional and must occur before any public hearing can occur on a new rule from any Maine agency (including OMP).
Title 5, Part 18, Chapter 375 §8063 of the Maine Administrative Procedure Act, indeed, requires that "[e]very rule proposed by an agency must contain a fiscal impact note at the end of the rule. The note must be placed on the rule prior to any public hearing..."
Opponents of the two bills (numbering only about a handful but, included among them, was an attorney for 11 billion dollar MSO Curaleaf) told lawmakers the existing OMP process was "fair" , reflected "good governance" and that lawmakers should, under no circumstances, mandate that the rule-making process be restarted to include more input from local stakeholders. Those stakeholders, opponents explained, had the chance to weigh in at OMP's public hearings and, thus, did not need to be included in the initial drafting process of the new rules.
Kraus, who is also part of the Seed to Health Learning Health Alliance, said she did not agree with that analysis;
"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 gross."
For Kraus, however, there were signs of optimism at the end of the marathon public hearing. "I think we were able to at least engage the Committee today, which was positive. They asked a lot of questions, and that is always a good thing in my opinion", she said.
Updates will be provided here if there is further movement on either bill in the Committee over the coming weeks.