Friday, June 18, 2010

Portland Daily Sun

Councilor, sheriff back marijuana dispensaries

Joined by medical marijuana advocates including licensed growers, patients and the Cumberland County Sheriff, Portland City Councilor Dave Marshall yesterday introduced his proposal to allow registered marijuana dispensaries in the downtown business zones.

At a City Hall press conference, he said the time was right.

"We've been waiting seven months for action," said Marshall. "My hope is that the planning board will get a recommendation out to allow zoning changes by July 17," he said.

The order is "a proactive way to deal with the zoning issues regarding the only dispensary for Cumberland County," Marshall said in a Wednesday press release.

Marshall's proposed council order is scheduled for discussion at Monday night's city council meeting.

The order comes in response to the City Attorney's proposed six-month moratorium on dispensaries within Portland, and would change zoning laws to allow dispensaries in the downtown business area. Marshall and others at the press conference said the moratorium would not only be another postponement in enacting the law passed by voters in November legalizing such dispensaries, but would also prevent growers from dispensing the drug in Portland, even to those already holding prescriptions.

Under a law passed in 1996, Mainers suffering from certain conditions can purchase the drug from "caregivers," who are licensed by the state to cultivate the herb for medical use. The 1996 law legalized the drug for medical use, but did not allow for any type of distribution system.
Advocates say the state has been dragging its heels in setting up a distribution network, necessitating a networking of caregivers to provide the drug to patients."We didn't imagine it would take ten years in 1996 when we passed a law without access," said Charles Wynott from Westbrook, who is a marijuana-growing caregiver as well as a patient.

"I wish we could get it into a pharmacy. It's all about the patients, and they need secured access in a business type atmosphere," Wynott said.

"We should be expanding, not erecting barriers. Patients lives are at stake," said Alysia Melnick, an attorney with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, at the press conference.

Ben Chipman, the statewide coordinator for last year's Yes on 5 campaign that promoted access, and a former legislative aide, called the proposed moratorium, "one of the most restrictive in the state."

"It's going to disrupt the delivery of medicine that has been going on for eleven years," said Chipman, who hopes that the city council will recognize the potential harm of the moratorium on patients."The council seems progressive, I think they will err on the side of what's right," Chipman said.

Maine's Department of Health and Human Services is scheduled to select the operators of the state's first eight dispensaries by July 9. The not-for-profit suppliers could open shop within weeks of licensing, depending on how quickly they could grow and process the drug and set up the security and tracking systems required by the state, barring any locally imposed moratoriums, like the ones enacted by Brewer and South Portland.

The eight dispensaries will be in different regions throughout the state. Cumberland and York Counties will each have one.

The moratorium was proposed by City Attorney Gary Wood, who cited ambiguities in state rule regarding appropriate sites for medical marijuana cultivation and rules governing primary caregivers. "My job, I thought, was to get the issue in front of the council and they would review it and amend it," said Wood.
"I think they should pass the moratorium, but it's up to them. They may not agree with the concerns that I'm expressing," Wood said.

Marshall's proposed council order is the city councilor's way of trying to allay Wood's apprehension about such ambiguities in state law as they apply to a dispensary here in Portland.

Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion gave some perspective on the issue from a law enforcement point of view, and said a dispensary system would make his own job easier."It's done in the light of day, so dispensary gives us the opportunity to publicly regulate this," said Dion. "Anything that brings it into the mainstream medical practice will make it easier to regulate," he said.

Dion said there is little evidence that dispensary systems foster criminal behavior, citing California's dispensary system, enacted in 2003 after the passing of Senate Bill 420. "The data from California suggests that the risk of crime outside a dispensary is no greater than what we'd experience at a bank. So I think we should just move forward and exercise the common sense that the voters have demonstrated in repeated votes on this measure," said Dion.
Comparing such dispensaries to the ubiquitos corner pharmacy, Dion said "We wouldn't be here today if this was a national pharmacy chain, we never stand back and go, 'CVS, now they are bad,'" Dion said.

"I live on Allen's Corner, where we have a Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid in a few blocks, I don't remember any meeting about that," he said, adding that such pharmacy chains sell perscriptions drugs that can actually be harmful to people in the community, including opiates like Oxycontin.
The downtown business zones are most appropriate for the dispensary due to the advantages of public transit and close proximity to social services, Marshall said at Thursday's press conference. "No other town has better access to public transportation and social services than Portland," he said.

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