AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Health and Human Services has hired the Maine Sheriffs Association to serve as watchdog over the state’s medical marijuana program.

“The department has contracted with the sheriffs association to provide follow-up investigations on complaints that are medical marijuana related,” DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said Friday. “They are not current deputies; they are retired law enforcement personnel. They are essentially investigators. They are not acting as law enforcement agents.”

The $167,000 contract between DHHS and the sheriffs association for the new investigations unit was signed March 1.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel A. Merry, president of the state’s sheriffs association, said he believes the group got the job because they already do tobacco and alcohol compliance in Maine.

“They’re like inspectors. It’s all administrative,” Merry said of his new DHHS-contracted agents. “The agents do these investigations or compliance checks based on complaints that come into the Department of Health and Human Services. They walk through and say, ‘These are the regulations. You need to do this and do that’ and ‘I’m going to write up for this or for that.’”

“It’s primarily for caregivers,” Merry said later, adding that his agents will follow up on any complaint assigned to them. “If there are regulatory violations, that is handled totally by the department.”

The Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act was put on the books by a citizen-initiated referendum in 2009 and allows caregivers to serve up to five patients at a time. There were 1,720 registered caregivers in Maine as of Dec. 31, 2014, according to Sorensen.

Each caregiver may maintain up to six flowering plants and 12 not yet mature plants per patient. Each patient can buy up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana every 15 days.

There are a lot of rules and regulations to follow. Before the contract was signed, there wasn’t any one group assigned to respond to complaints, Merry said, which meant area law enforcement and sometimes town officials were called to handle them.

Five new agents were hired to do the DHHS contract work, and four complaints were investigated in the first two weeks, Merry said.

Complaints and incident reports are filed with DHHS. If further investigation is needed, they are sent to the sheriffs association. The contract states the sheriff’s agent will start the investigation within 48 hours of receiving the complaint and will finish their review within 14 days.

“Reports will be generated so that department staff may make a final determination on the correct course of action for complaint resolution,” the 15-page contract states.

The Maine Sheriffs Association also agreed to provide DHHS with weekly updates about the ongoing case files and “to maintain the confidentiality and security” regarding protected information, the contract states.

In addition to caregivers, there are eight state-approved dispensaries in Maine.

“They told us they were going to do this months ago,” Becky DeKeuster of Wellness Connection of Maine said Friday.

Wellness Connection of Maine operates four of the state’s eight licensed nonprofit dispensaries in Brewer, Gardiner, Portland and Thomaston that, when combined, serve 5,500 patients. DeKeuster said the newly hired sheriffs association investigators have not been to any of Wellness Connection’s facilities.

“We get inspected through DHHS,” she said.