As N.H. Weighs Medical Marijuana, Neighboring States Say Their Programs Are Working

Mar 12, 2013

Credit Photo Credit Katja Rupp, via Flickr Creative Commons

New Hampshire is bordered by states all in varying stages of implementing their own medical marijuana programs.

As the Granite State moves forward with its own proposal, we look at those neighboring states to see how their programs compare and what issues they have that we could see here.

We meet Lori and Dave Labreck at the Salmon Falls Café in Lebanon, Maine. We’re here because they’re concerned about security. Both are patients under the state’s medical marijuana program and are able to grow the plant at their southern Maine home. They’ve asked me not to name the town.

“I have suffered from debilitating medical conditions since I was a teenager, with severe migraines with vomiting and nausea, chronic myofascial pain,” says Lori Labreck. “Traditional prescription medications would incapacitate me and I would have to work in pain or take the meds. And I couldn’t do that.”

In addition to being patients, the Labrecks are also what are called caregivers, or individuals who grow their own medicinal marijuana and can sell it to a small number of patients.

Labreck says caregivers give patients a more affordable option, and a more personal approach.

“We have one patient who is bone on bone on his knees. He needs a total knee replacement on both knees. He in a very limited budget from social security and he cannot afford to go to a dispensary for that medication.”

The caregiver model is part of legislation that will go before the New Hampshire House of Representatives this month. It must also pass the Senate and be signed into law by Governor Maggie Hassan before becoming reality.

Unlike her predecessor John Lynch, Hassan has expressed support for a tightly-controlled medicinal marijuana program. This gives New Hampshire its best chance at being the final New England state to approve medicinal marijuana.

But being last also means being able to look across the border and see other programs are working.

Maine has eight medical marijuana dispensaries. Joan Smyrski works in licensing and regulatory services for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

“Right now, there is no wait list to receive medical marijuana at our eight dispensaries. So it appears right now looking at data that eight dispensaries are meeting the need.”

New Hampshire’s proposal only calls for five dispensaries, or alternative treatment centers. Like most states, patients must have a chronic or terminal disease, along with other qualifying symptoms.

But states often also see pushback from communities that don’t want dispensaries. Massachusetts is dealing with that now after voters approved medicinal marijuana last year.

In Maine, some towns have sought to impose additional fees on dispensaries as a way to discourage them from taking up shop. Smyrski says her department has requested a legal opinion on the matter.

“We at this point believe state statute overrides town and local municipalities around licensing and around fees but that is a legal determination that’s in the works.”

To the west, Vermont takes a different approach. Lindsey Wells is the administrator of Vermont’s medical marijuana program.

“Each town has their own right to say we don’t want it. We had some towns that were proactive and were just like before anybody even tries to come to our town and open a dispensary, we’re gonna say no, we don’t want it, we’re not interested.”

It’s not clear how New Hampshire would deal with this. Representative Diane Schlachman of Exeter is the prime sponsor of New Hampshire’s proposal. She says the bill requires towns and cities have an opportunity to weigh in during the dispensary application process.

“One of the things we really pride ourselves in in this state is the idea of local control and local decision making.”

New Hampshire’s dispensaries could not be in a residential area or within 1,000 feet of a school.

Last year, Vermont approved licenses for three dispensaries. State law allows for up to four.

One of those licenses went to Shane Lynn of Burlington. He is in the process of opening Champlain Valley Dispensary and has faced some challenges.

“I was banking with someone for six or seven months and was very excited I had a partner here, a community bank, and then they actually saw a 60 Minutes piece and got cold feet and I got a call from their regulators and they closed my account. That made it difficult to proceed as a business without a bank.”

Lynn says he’s since found a bank that would hold his account. He’s planning for a June opening.

Another lesson surrounding states have provided is not to expect New Hampshire’s law to take effect overnight, should it pass.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services will have six months to complete its rulemaking to implement the program. Schlachman says at that point, people will be able to apply for cards to become eligible.

“It will take dispensaries probably up to 18 months to get and running from what we’ve learned.”

New Hampshire’s House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee gave a favorable recommendation to the bill last week, by a vote of 14-1. But Schlachman says it’s undergone some revisions.

For example, under the original proposal, New Hampshire’s law would have allowed patients from other states to purchase from Granite State providers. That’s not something allowed in Maine or Vermont.

But Schlachman says that provision was removed in subcommittee.

It was done because of concerns about enforcement. But she says overall, the bill provides for an effectively-regulated program.

One way New Hampshire’s program would differ from Maine and Vermont is that it only requires a three-month relationship with a physician before the doctor can recommend medical marijuana.

Maine and Vermont require a six-month relationship.

“We didn’t think that it took six months to establish a good relationship with a physician.”

Law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire have raised concerns about medical marijuana getting into the wrong hands. But officials from Maine and Vermont say that simply hasn’t been an issue.

Smyrski, who works for the state of Maine, says like with any other medication, there are a small number of people who will try to access it illegally.

“I think that’s a minority, and the majority of people I think are following regulations and they’re very much in need of the medical marijuana.”

Wells, the Vermont program administrator, says it’s important to proceed with caution. Her advice to New Hampshire?

“Take your time and go slow at it, rather than rush into and fix it afterwards.”

Lori Labreck says she sees some flaws in the New Hampshire proposal, among them the limitations on the number of patients that caregivers can have. In Maine, it’s up to five. In New Hampshire’s, it’s limited to one patient.

“How are the patients across the state going to obtain safe, quality medical marijuana if the caregiver model isn’t seriously looked at?”

And her husband Dave Labreck says that as long the federal government continues to not recognize marijuana as a legal form of medicine, there will be issues in all states.

He says those who choose to go be caregivers must realize they are going out on a limb.

“Reality is until it’s all settled we’re all taking a chance and you have to weigh whether the benefits for our patients and ourselves outweigh the chance. For us it does.”

UPDATE: The Portland Press-Herald reported over the weekend that the state of Maine has opened an investigation into four of the state's medical marijuana dispensaries, run by the Wellness Connection of Maine. State officials said  this type of investigation has not been done before, but did not release any more details.

UPDATE: Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has ruled that the state's cities and towns cannot issue total bans on medical marijuana treatment centers.