Addiction in Maine: Conference speakers blast medical marijuana law

(First of a three-part series)

ILLEGAL, BUT NOT FOR SOME — In this June 2010 photo, Bridgton Police Officer T.J. Reece shows off 17 pounds of marijuana he seized in Bridgton in a drug bust. Two and a half of the bags on the table — roughly the equivalent of a gallon-size zip-lock bag — represents the amount of marijuana that a person with a medical marijuana prescription can legally possess under the state’s medical marijuana law.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Maine’s medical marijuana law came under intense criticism at the annual Addiction Conference sponsored by Healthy Oxford Hills in South Paris Dec. 7.

Two experts, one in addiction medicine and the other in law enforcement, said that deregulation of the law over the past three years has made their jobs much more difficult, and is sending the wrong message to young people who now increasingly view marijuana as medicine.

Discussion of the medical marijuana law became a prime focus of the conference, after Maine Rep. Tom Winsor (R-Norway) asked Dr. Mark Publicker for his opinion. Publicker is a respected addiction medicine specialist at the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook, and is also president of the Northern New England Society of Addiction Medicine.

Publicker said he’s seen a “tremendous increase in the use of marijuana by adolescents” since 2009, when Maine voters approved an expansion of the original 1999 law to create nonprofit dispensaries (currently there are eight, including one in Auburn) and allow certified caregivers to grow marijuana for their patients. Prior to 2009, marijuana use among adolescents had shown a steady decline.

The 2009 amendments to the law also expanded the list of allowable conditions (originally cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDs, Crohn’s disease, Lou Gerhig’s disease, hepatitis C and Alzheimer’s disease) to include less serious conditions such as seizure disorders, severe muscle spasms and intractable pain.

“There is no perception of harm anymore,” said Publicker. Nor does the law require that addiction screening be part of a physician’s assessment prior to issuing a prescription. He said such perceptions of marijuana as harmless fly in the face of strong evidence that marijuana impairs cognition, especially when driving, and is toxic to lungs. Also, he said the likelihood of addiction is extremely high among adolescents, who lack executive brain function. A study showed that heavy marijuana smoking at age 15-17 increases the risk of schizophrenia by six- to seven-fold, and increases panic trauma disorders, he said.

“We don’t have effective treatment for cannabis addiction,” Publicker said. “Working in my field, I can tell you that I can get my patients to stop smoking, drinking, using opiates or cocaine, but I can’t get them to stop smoking marijuana.” Publicker said that had the law been subject to an evidence-based evaluation, rather than voted in through a citizen initiative, the evidence of marijuana’s harmful effects would far outweigh its medicinal value in treating chronic pain.

The view from the cruiser

Oxford Patrolman Zane Loper, who spent seven years as a undercover agent working in Oxford County for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, echoed Publicker’s view that the recent deregulation of the medical marijuana law has led to increased use of marijuana by adolescents.

Referring to nearby Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, Loper said, “If you were to walk in that high school right now, you would find that more than 50% of those kids have either tried or regularly use marijuana. And if you ask those kids, they say it is so safe, because it is a medical thing. Unfortunately, we’re going to raise a generation in the state of Maine, that are in high school right now, that believe that marijuana is absolutely the thing to do.”

Loper said, “I think we’re moving in the wrong direction on medical marijuana. I’ve never met in all my time in drug enforcement a heroin addict who didn’t tell me that their first experience with drugs was marijuana,” Loper said. And he asked those that would scoff that marijuana is a “gateway drug” to think again.

“I’ve watched a lot of horrible things with young children that decided at the high school level to smoke a joint with their friends or cousins, and within a few years they were injecting heroin, and they were stealing everything that they could from their parents, from relatives, cleaning out grandma’s bank account.”

Worse still, Loper said, from the perspective of law enforcement, is the fact that the state Department of Health and Human Services, who run the medical marijuana program, have allowed for “no law enforcement input whatsoever” in the regulations that oversee the law. “Every law enforcement advance we’ve tried to put into it has been shot down,” he said.

For one year, primarily through the efforts of Maine DEA Director Roy McKinney, the law required patients to carry a registration card and made both doctors and patients register with the state. However, in September of 2011, those reporting requirements were made optional, due to patient privacy concerns, and now there is no way to know how many people are using medical marijuana, or how many doctors are prescribing it. Data collected before the optional reporting went into effect showed a total of 2,833 patients with medical marijuana prescriptions being prescribed by a total of 263 doctors.

Loper said the optional reporting requirement has been particularly vexing to police, who no longer have access to information that tells them whether someone caught with marijuana plants are growing them legitimately, or whether a person whose car smells like marijuana during a traffic stop is a legal medical marijuana user. If someone says they are a medical marijuana patient, police cannot require that person to produce the prescription. “And we say, all right sir, here’s your license and registration, have a nice day.”

It gets worse, Loper said. “There are facilities that have been built in this area since the medical marijuana laws been passed that do nothing more than to grow hundreds of plants of medical marijuana,” even when police have solid reason to suspect some of that marijuana is being diverted for the illegal drug trade, “Nobody will do anything about it,” Loper said. “I’ve had state attorneys, federal attorneys tell me to turn around and walk out.”

Loper said drug dealers in Oxford County know how to “play the law” by only driving around with two and a half ounces of marijuana, which is the legal limit for possession under the medical marijuana law. Once they sell that amount, they return home to get another two and a half ounces, and so on, he said. The law also allows for possession of up to six plants, three of them mature.

“There’s something very, very wrong with the medical marijuana law,” Loper said. “I don’t think the regular everyday person out there knows” about the impact the law has for law enforcement, nor about its unintended consequence of increased marijuana use among adolescents. “It’s going to turn into big business. You can make so much money growing marijuana it would just blow your mind. It’s to the point where some sort of catastrophe is going to happen, and then we’ll say, oh, what did we do.”


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