Thursday, April 4, 2002
By JOSHUA L. WEINSTEIN, Portland Press Herald Writer
Just a few years ago, it would have been controversial. But now, medical marijuana is so routine, a law doubling the amount of the drug that patients may legally possess in Maine passed with hardly a notice.
Gov. Angus King, who initially opposed medical marijuana, quietly signed
it on Monday.
"It has not been a huge issue," Tony Sprague, the governor's spokesman, said Wednesday.
Under the new law, patients with certain medical conditions can possess 2.5 ounces, rather than 1.25 ounces, of marijuana. However, they still are limited to six plants, three of which can be mature.
The bill was so ordinary, senators passed it by a voice vote, rather than a roll call.
Yet it is groundbreaking.
By passing the law, legislators in Maine became the first in the country to expand a medical marijuana law.
"It is indicative of the maturation of the issue," said Richard Schmitz, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.,-based organization that supports medical marijuana. "This is something that, say, five years ago, you would never expect the Maine Legislature to do, and you wouldn't expect Governor Angus King to sign this without fanfare."
In fact, legislators initially wanted to do more than increase the amount of marijuana users could possess. They wanted to figure out a way for the state to distribute the drug.
They decided not to go that far after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last May that a California distribution plan was illegal. But Maine lawmakers still wanted to allow medical users to have more than 1.25 ounces of the drug. So they passed the new law.
As recently as 1999, though, the Legislature was squeamish about allowing any medical marijuana use at all. It declined that year - and two years earlier - to pass a medical marijuana law.
In November 1999, voters did what lawmakers wouldn't, and passed, with a 62 percent majority, a law that lets patients who are certified to have particular conditions use, grow and possess small amounts of marijuana.
The law King signed on Monday increased the amount to 2.5 ounces.
Gina Palencar, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, said Maine lawmakers were so low-key about the new measure, her organization - which helped get the question on the ballot here in 1999 - barely took notice of it.
"They really moved this forward on their own," she said.
Maine was the first eastern state to pass a medical marijuana law.
Now, however, legislatures in Vermont and Maryland are considering their own.
Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also have laws that allow patients to use marijuana in limited circumstances.
The amount of marijuana patients may have varies by state. In Washington, patients may legally possess or cultivate up to a "60-day supply." In Colorado, they may have up to 2 ounces of marijuana and grow six plants. In Oregon, they may have up to 3 ounces of usable marijuana and grow up to seven plants - three mature.
These laws do have opponents.
The new chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Asa Hutchinson,
opposes medical marijuana use, and marijuana - medical or otherwise - remains
illegal under federal law.
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