AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would give immunity from state law to hospitals that allow nonsmoking marijuana for patients who need it.

The bill, LD 726, also defines in law what incidental marijuana is, including nonflowering plants or plant byproducts that have not yet been processed into medicinal products.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has rules defining incidental marijuana, but those rules are not in statute. Under the current rules, a medical marijuana caregiver is allowed to have up to 8 pounds of incidental marijuana.

The proposal approved by the Health and Human Services Committee also establishes a lab-testing protocol to certify the quality of medicinal marijuana products to ensure proper dosages and potency levels for patients, especially children who have epileptic seizures. That change would also allow for labeling of medical marijuana products to certify their quality and content.

That change would set the same quality standards for medical marijuana caregivers, who can grow up to five plants per patient with a maximum of six patients, and the eight medicinal marijuana dispensaries scattered across Maine.

But because of concern over possible opposition from Republican Gov. Paul LePage and others in the Legislature, lawmakers on the committee put the brakes on a pair of other provisions they were contemplating, including one that would increase the amount of excess marijuana a caregiver could sell to another caregiver or dispensary, or a dispensary could sell to another dispensary. That change would have upped the limit from 2 to 5 pounds.

The committee also backed away from a provision that would have allowed dispensaries in Maine to become for-profit companies. State law requires them to be nonprofit entities. But because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, they cannot obtain any official nonprofit status or benefit.

That didn’t stop a number of lawmakers Wednesday from expressing their support for those provisions.

“I don’t see the harm in moving forward with a business model here,” Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said.

Looming in the background on all of the discussion is the possibility that Maine voters in November will have an opportunity to make recreational marijuana legal under state law, a move that likely would have a reverberating effect on the state’s medical marijuana industry.

The change to a for-profit model would more readily allow the state’s largest medical marijuana growers and dispensaries to establish themselves in a fledgling recreational marijuana industry if approved by voters in November.

“Being a big proponent of the free market, I kind of tend to support any chance we can to expand free-market principles in the industry,” Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said.

He said he supports allowing dispensaries to become for-profit businesses, but he also supports the idea that caregivers should be allowed to convert to dispensaries as they grow and that patient caps for caregivers should be eliminated.

“Whatever path we can take to allow the free market to operate more in this industry, I support,” Brakey, the Senate chairman of the committee, said.

Those ideas and others that could be viewed as expanding access to marijuana are unlikely to gain the support of anti-drug conservatives in the Legislature and could face opposition from LePage .

Representatives from the caregivers and the dispensaries offered testimony in support of the new regulations for lab-testing quality control and setting in law definitions for incidental marijuana that has not yet been processed into medical products.

“Believe it or not, the dispensaries and caregivers have really been reaching out to each other in trying to work together, in trying to move the program forward without so much negativity, which is very nice,” said Catherine Lewis, the director of education for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a trade group.

Lewis said her group did have concerns about allowing dispensaries to move to a for-profit model without also allowing caregivers to expand their businesses by removing patient and plant limits currently on the books.

It’s an issue that hasn’t been lost on lawmakers, including Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, one of the ranking Republicans on the committee.

“I would like to see the entire industry be able to flourish and let the market decide the winners and the losers, not the regulatory pieces that we sit in here and make the decisions on,” Sanderson said. “I am very uncomfortable in allowing — in the most simplistic terms here — something that allows for the growth of Wal-Marts and puts limitations on the mom and pops.”

Sanderson said caregivers in Maine had created thousands of jobs

geographically dispersed around the state, including in some of Maine’s most economically depressed areas. Sanderson said she would fight for parity for the little guy but ultimately, she wanted to advance legislation that had support.

“We need to decide as a committee today, where do we want to push the boundaries and get as many more yards down the field as we can get to move this program forward,” Sanderson said.

Other lawmakers on the committee agreed they should try to move forward with legislation that appeared to be politically possible and then develop new bills for changes that are likely to be more controversial or could change, depending on what voters decide in November.

Also likely to derail any state legislation could be changes at the federal level, including a rumored pending executive order from President Barack Obama that would remove medical marijuana from the federal government’s list of prohibited scheduled drugs, Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, said.

Malaby said that while he could support the other provisions, he believed it would be in the best interest of the committee to take incremental steps.

Others, including Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, said they supported the need to improve quality controls to ensure dosage safety and effectiveness for patients, and they didn’t want to sacrifice achieving that in law for the sake of the other provisions.

“I think the labs are extraordinarily important for patient safety, and I wouldn’t want to see that compromised in any way by putting it together with other things that could make that fall apart,” Hymanson said.

Brakey said regardless of the outcome of a potential November ballot question on recreational marijuana, Maine was going to continue to have a thriving medical marijuana industry, and he intended to advance legislation in the future to support it.

“I think the medical marijuana program is here to stay,” Brakey said.

The bill will return to the committee for a final language review before it is moved to the full Legislature for votes in the weeks ahead.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.