Benny Carrasco is seen in this October 2016 file photo. He and his business partner Mike Damren (not shown) are licensed to grow medical marijuana in Maine. Credit: Micky Bedell

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative panel recommended a sweeping overhaul of Maine’s medical marijuana program on Wednesday that would allow six new dispensaries above the eight in current law and end the cap on them completely in 2021.

The proposal endorsed by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee would be the most major overhaul of the medical program since it was established by Maine voters in 2009 but has shrunk since the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016.

Now, Mainers with a doctor’s certification to use marijuana to treat certain conditions or symptoms can buy medical marijuana at eight state-licensed marijuana dispensaries, through individual caregivers allowed to serve five patients or grow marijuana for their own consumption.

But Maine’s program has constantly struggled with the regulatory balance between dispensaries and the state’s roughly 3,000 caregivers, who often escape state scrutiny after they’re up and running because they often grow in home facilities spread out across the state.

Data from the Marijuana Policy Project and the state also show that the number of patients in the program shrank from more than 51,000 to just under 42,000 by the end of 2017, which the industry has blamed on legalization and the fact that the state hasn’t set up a commercial system for recreational marijuana.

But the bill approved by the committee on Wednesday, which has been in the works since last year, would significantly open the medical market to new providers.

It will now go to the full Legislative for votes. Two members of the 13-person committee — Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Rep. Paul Chace, R-Durham — voted for a version of the bill scrapping the dispensary cap entirely.

The bill endorsed by the panel would remove the list of qualifying conditions and allow a doctor to approve a patient if the doctor believes it will alleviate the patient’s condition and establish licenses for medical marijuana product manufacturing and extraction.

Caregivers would be allowed to serve an unlimited amount of patients while capping their allowable number of mature plants at 30, but they would also be subject to unannounced inspections that could be a criterion for registration renewal.

Rebecca London, a consultant for the Portland law firm of Drummond Woodsum, which lobbies for a marijuana industry group, praised the committee’s bill for prioritizing “accountability” for caregivers and said it “opens the market for folks who are looking to get in as well as people who have experience already in the market.”

Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine, said his caregiver group will wait for the bill’s final language to be released to take a position on it, but it’s supportive of the outline. He said the new regulations on caregivers are those that “any reasonable business could expect.”

“We think it’ll put it on course to have a real robust regulatory scheme while also ensuring that patients have access to safe medical cannabis,” he said.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...