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More than 400 Mainers have applied to be medical marijuana patients under a state law that took effect Saturday.
Applications flooded into the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in the final days and weeks of 2010, and hundreds more are expected in the next several weeks. Officials say they expect to give registration cards to 1,200 or more patients by the time the initial rush is over this spring.
Starting Jan. 1, Mainers must be registered with the state before legally using marijuana to ease the symptoms of cancer, AIDS and other conditions. For the past decade, patients needed only a doctor's authorization.
"Everybody's coming in at the last minute. We've been hammered," said Catherine Cobb, director of licensing and regulatory services for the department.
While the registration requirement is taking effect on schedule, meeting another goal of the state's expanded medical marijuana law is taking a little longer than expected.
The law authorized a network of eight medical marijuana dispensaries, which initially were scheduled to open for business in the fall or winter of 2010. Now, however, the first of Maine's dispensaries is expected to open in March or April. They would be the first California-style dispensaries on the East Coast.
"There's no dispensary right now, but ... we have two dispensaries that are actually cultivating," said John Thiele, manager of Maine's medical marijuana program.
"The people of Maine did vote in a (2009) referendum that they do want them available for their loved ones to use, so I would just like to see the dispensaries get up and running as soon as possible."
Once dispensaries start operating around the state, there could be another surge in registrations. Patients applying for a registration card must tell state officials where they will get their marijuana, and they are now limited to two options: They can grow their own, or have a registered caregiver grow it for them. Caregivers -- who can each grow for as many as five patients -- are now the primary source of the drug for Maine patients.
"Three hundred (patient) cards have been printed," Thiele said on Thursday, the final processing day before the deadline. "We have probably in excess of 100 more applications that we're going through now" and more were flowing in Thursday afternoon.
Patients must pay $100 for the annual registration card, or $75 if they are MaineCare patients. They must have a doctor's recommendation and have one of the qualifying conditions listed by the state, including cancer, AIDS, glaucoma and Crohn's disease.
State officials have not yet sorted out all the applications, but Cobb said the largest group of patients appears to be using the drug to treat "intractable pain." Intractable pain is a catch-all category defined as pain caused by a chronic or debilitating disease that has not responded to medical treatments for more than six months.
Cobb said applications have come in from all regions of the state, and that 60 Maine physicians have provided recommendations for their patients. "A lot of people felt that physicians wouldn't be certifying folks," she said.
Most applications are approved, although some were rejected because the applicant was not a Maine resident or cited a medical problem such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder that is not on the list of qualifying conditions, according to Thiele.
The last-minute flood of applications means the department won't get cards to every patient immediately after Jan. 1, he said.
The Maine Attorney General's Office has warned police agencies that there is a backlog and that some legal patients may not be able to show a registration card if found to be in possession of marijuana in January. It is advising police officers to call the DHHS to check if an application is pending in such cases.
The Attorney General's Office also has been helping police agencies prepare for the new rules, which limit registered patients to possession of no more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana and limit how many plants a patient or caregiver can grow.
"I think there probably is confusion when it comes to amounts and what happens if you come across a situation where there is a big marijuana grow," said Brian MacMaster, director of investigations for the Attorney General's Office. "I think it's just a matter of working through it."
Some patients and caregivers have been reluctant to put their names on a state registry, arguing that it's a violation of privacy or might get them in trouble with federal drug agents. Medical marijuana use remains a violation of federal law, although the federal government has not targeted medical users for enforcement.
"I think a lot of people are still a little bit wary," said Jonathan Leavitt, a patient and caregiver who led the referendum drive in 2009 and now leads a trade group called Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. "We're all going to continue to fight to repeal that mandatory registration requirement."
Leavitt said the registration requirement is one of many rules imposed after the 2009 referendum that advocates hope to overturn in the Legislature in 2011. In the meantime, he said, there are many more patients and caregivers who have not registered with the state.
Under the current rules, patients will need to have registration cards to buy marijuana from one of the state's yet-to-open dispensaries.
In southern Maine, Portland and Biddeford have cleared the way for dispensaries in their cities, although the operators are still months away from opening and have not even begun growing marijuana plants. Dispensary operates need three months or more to grow enough marijuana to open for business.
Biddeford's dispensary is expected to be near Southern Maine Medical Center while the Portland operator, Northeast Patients Group, has not yet settled on a site, according to state officials.
Operators working to open dispensaries in Ellsworth and Frenchville are farthest along and have begun growing plants after getting state approval of cultivation facilities and security plans. Both operators say they plan to open in March or April.
Most dispensary operators originally said they would open before the end of 2010. Each one, however, has run into delays while working with local regulators and neighbors.
"I think everybody's in the same boat," said Derek Brock, chief executive officer of Maine Organic Therapy, which plans to open a dispensary in Ellsworth.
Brock's dispensary changed its name from Primary Organic Therapy, or POT, at the state's request. Brock said he still plans to open by April, although the community has set tight limits on the location and type of building.
"It's a matter of finding the right location that's in the zone that they've proposed," he said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: