- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2011

AUBURN, Maine — The first thing that jumps out at a visitor to the Remedy Compassion Center is how neat and clean it is. The walls are an immaculate blue from floor to ceiling, and the freshly carpeted main room is vast and almost empty.

The second thing one notices is the distinctly herby, faint odor of fresh-cut marijuana.

The center is, after all, a medical marijuana dispensary and, given the controversial nature of the treatment — or business — being conducted here, the impression of spotlessness is no accident.

“We wanted it to be a setting where it would be like going to a pharmacy,” said Tim Smale, who opened the facility after struggling for years to obtain marijuana legally as a remedy for his own recurring migraine headaches.

“There’s tens of thousands of people like me who don’t have a place to go for medicine, so it’s all about creating a place for patients to go and find a safe and trusted source.”

California more than a decade ago became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, which has long been hailed for its role in preventing nausea and vomiting in cancer patients and easing the symptoms of others suffering from a variety of diseases and ailments.

Since 16 states and the District have legalized the drug for anyone with a doctor’s note, the debate over marijuana’s gradual decriminalization is flowering on a national scale. Critics say the lax and haphazard laws in early states such as California have tainted the concept for Maine and other states seeking more orderly and regulated processes.

There has been a backlash of sorts. In Montana, where voters approved the concept in a 2004 referendum, medical marijuana advocates have gone to court against a law enacted by the Legislative Assembly designed to sharply restrict the number of people who qualify for the treatment and ban large growing operations in the state.

Mr. Smale’s dispensary is one of the first on the East Coast, putting Maine at the forefront of a slippery legal dispute within the Obama administration and with state lawmakers over how far the states can go before violating federal drug laws.

“Where do we go from here? It’s a good question,” said Jessica A. Smith, a Justice Department spokeswoman, who noted that marijuana remains illegal under federal law even as more states vote to legalize it as a medical palliative.

The issue has become particularly sticky since 2009 when U.S. Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden issued a memo reminding federal prosecutors that “no state can authorize violations of federal law.”

Although the memo advised U.S. attorneys not to target individuals acting in compliance “with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” news of the Ogden memo sent jolts of paranoia through states.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, declared an indefinite halt last month to his state’s plan to open three medical marijuana dispensaries.

His office had received a letter from Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Nehronha asserting that “growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities.”

Lawmakers in Maine, however, were unfazed by a similarly worded letter sent by Maine U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty.

“I don’t know why, but we haven’t seemed to have the trouble with the feds that the other states have,” said John Thiele, a program manager at Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the registration of medical marijuana users.

A bill to clarify the rights of medical marijuana users is working its way through the state Legislature this month. Its provisions include a ban of police seizure of marijuana from legally qualified patients and dispensers, and it forbids local Maine jurisdictions from adopting standards tougher than state law.

Three of eight dispensaries certified by the state have opened in recent weeks, and approximately 1,460 patients have been registered since Maine passed its medical marijuana law in 2009.

More than 100 have signed up to buy marijuana at the Remedy Compassion Center, where Mr. Smale said the state could become a model for the nation.

“California didn’t have any rules and, as a result, the dispensaries flourished, with hundreds opening under a hodgepodge of local rules,” he said. “It didn’t set a very good precedent for the country. Maine has an opportunity to blaze a different path.”

What is unique about the state’s law, Mr. Smale said, is that it “created at completely closed-loop system, and I think that’s the beauty of it for America.”

Maine allows registered patients to either grow a small number of marijuana plants or buy from a registered caregiver or dispensary.

Although annual registration costs $15,000 for dispensaries and $100 for patients, it remains to be seen how profitable it may be for the state, which also collects a 5 percent sales tax.

“It’s too early to say that we’re making a lot of money,” said Mr. Thiele. “The state is going to have to spend more money to make sure it can regulate this in an effective and efficient manner.”

Another issue is the morally uncertain position for state officials when deciding who qualifies for medical marijuana.

One official in Maine, wishing not to be identified, said the state was caught in such position this month over what to tell a doctor who had recommended medical marijuana for a 17-month-old baby with a brain tumor. The official refused to provide further details, citing issues of doctor-patient confidentiality.