Regulating Maine’s medical marijuana dispensaries

Fear of the federal government guided the early development of Maine’s medical marijuana dispensary program. I should know; 2010 was the beginning of the regulation of a complex, federally illegal, state-run program, and I was at the center of it.

I was also regulating Maine’s health care system for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, licensing services ranging from childcare facilities to hospitals. I thought I could regulate the hell out of anything, and I did.

All kidding aside, that fear of the federal government (as well as the influence of civil liberties proponents) resulted in over-regulation on one hand, and lack of regulation on the other. The extremes of a system that I helped design now need to be revisited. President Obama’s efforts not to interfere with state medical marijuana programs haven’t gone far enough.

The administration recently tried to assure banks that it was ok to have “pot” money deposited in mainstream accounts, but placed caveats on the banks that they would be held accountable if any of that money was laundered or shipped overseas. These caveats resulted in some banks terminating their relationship with Maine companies; the opposite of what was meant to happen.

The Justice Department also issued a memo indicating their scarce resources will not be used to enforce federal marijuana laws if the activities were state-legal and tightly regulated. But this, too, is subject to the whim of whoever is in that office, and could change with a change in administration. Add to this the fact that local law enforcement departments share the same fear, with many saying federal law trumps state law or city ordinances?

This lengthy lead-in is by way of saying there are many other areas where the federal government must either change federal law or give states more latitude to integrate medical marijuana into the health care of its citizens. The Veterans Administration has softened its stance on veterans’ use of medical marijuana in that they will not terminate the veterans’ benefits. However, even if their physicians think they may benefit from medical marijuana, the patient must seek out an alternative health care provider willing to certify for its use, disrupting the continuity of the veterans’ health care.

Lastly, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has remained silent on its position regarding use of medical marijuana in Maine’s nursing homes and hospice programs. With the loosening of the fed’s stance, these health care providers need assurance that CMS will not come after their federal dollars if they choose to administer it.

I take responsibility for a tightly written regulatory package for these facilities in Maine, initially driven by the fear of the federal government’s payment for those services as well as the Justice Department’s fear that nursing home and hospice employees might be too tempted to divert the patient’s medicine.

I believe now is the time to recognize that our resources should be directed at improving the quality of life of sick patients. Imagine a world where patients are not drugged to death on prescription painkillers, but instead are treated with a natural herb without the serious side effects of these pharmaceuticals.

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Cathy Cobb

About Cathy Cobb

Head of DHHS's Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services when the 2009 law was approved. Integral to crafting the original dispensary law. Current board member of Wellness Connection of Maine.