Farmington bust reignites debate for tighter guidelines in Maine medical hashish program

A widespread conspiracy case against several defendants in the Farmington area emerged Tuesday during a meeting of the state’s marijuana advisory committee. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney General, but it is also sparking tension between those involved in Maine’s medical cannabis program.

The criminal case includes a dozen defendants, including current and former law enforcement officers and an assistant district attorney from Franklin County, who allegedly played a role in a $ 13 million operation in which Maine’s medical marijuana program used cannabis on to grow and sell in the illegal market, sometimes outside of the state.

While this case is being ruled in federal court, the alleged exploitation of Maine’s medical cannabis law is causing some to advocate for stricter regulations and oversight from the State Office of Marijuana Policy (OMP).

That debate became sharp during Tuesday’s Marijuana Advisory Committee meeting after Assistant Attorney General John Risler asked OMP Director Erik Gundersen if his office had the resources to crack down on the illicit cannabis market.

“Uh, no. No,” said Gundersen.

Gundersen noted that OMP is the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing licensees in the medical or recreational programs.

“When we get reports of obvious, illegal activity that is quite common, it is being tracked, seen and followed, this is a direct return to local law enforcement and it is really a toss of the coin if there is any sort of follow-up with the Office of Marijuana Policy, “he said.

And enforcing illegal marijuana operations is a mixed bag.

The state decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana back in 1976 and has since become more permissive. Medical cannabis has been allowed since 2009 and was expanded in 2018 to eliminate pre-existing conditions for patients.

In between, voters approved recreational ownership and adult use in 2016.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, says his agency is now devoting much of its energy to tackling more dangerous substances.

“We are focusing on the biggest threats we have right now that are killing the people of Maine,” he said. “And to be honest, those are fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine.”

For many members of the Marijuana Advisory Commission, this should be the current focus of the MDEA.

But there are some who fear that the Farmington bust is a bigger problem: that Maine’s medical and recreational programs are competing with an illicit market that continues to thrive

“If illegal marijuana is easy to get into the program, it means the people who get it right, who are registered, are the farmers who just make the product, competing in the illegal market,” said Hannah King, attorney by Drummond Woodsum, who advises communities, medical pharmacies, entrepreneurs and investors on recreational and medicinal cannabis regulations.

King says illegal operations undercut legal suppliers and breeders and undermine one of the stated goals of legal cannabis: to eradicate the illegal market.

King and others have urged that track and trace, a requirement that recreational traders and breeders electronically track cannabis products across their supply chains, be extended to the medical program.

The state proposed exactly this change last year, but met widespread opposition from smaller caregivers who feared it would be too burdensome and put them out of business.

Josh Quint, who works for Canuvo Medical Pharmacy in Biddeford, admits the tracking and tracing is controversial, but says their absence has created avenues to take advantage of Maine’s medical marijuana program.

“Some people are just on the wrong side and they find out and work their way back and that’s great. ” he said.

But Alysia Melnick, who represents the roughly 3,000 members of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, says the state already has the tools to keep medical operations in compliance, including 12 field researchers.

Track and trace, she says, is not necessarily a panacea.

“If you look at a state like California, which has robust track and trace, there are still huge gray and black markets and lots of illegal activity,” she said.

The debate is sure to intensify when state lawmakers return to the State House in January.

The marijuana advisory board is expected to make recommendations to the cannabis program by then.