What the heck is wrong with Maine DHHS?

So really — if I had to estimate how much blog space I’ve dedicated to the various and sundry problems at Maine DHHS under Governor Paul LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, I’m guessing it’s at least a third.

Frankly, sometimes I feel guilty for only scratching the surface, like I should’ve dedicated most of my last two years of blogging to that iceberg. Try as I may, I can’t escape the sense that I am letting the most vulnerable of my peers down.

I wish Commissioner Mayhew felt that way.

But who can keep up with it all? Even after writing a series of three letters (click here for my favorite) about the troubled department just two weeks ago, there’s already more negative news piling up about federal money left untapped and the lack of commitment to working poor families. 

And now I’ve learned there’s yet another way the department wants to shirk its responsibilities to almost 50,000 patients in Maine. A department official testified before the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation Tuesday and said the department didn’t want to oversee the medical marijuana program any longer.

I mean, the department’s already letting down the working poor, the mentally ill, the disabled, the elderly, kids — so why not medical marijuana patients too?

Why keep a program that successfully serves so many, that is self-sustaining and finances six positions at the department, and that always has extra cash in its account? Given the current track record at DHHS, I’m not surprised they don’t seem interested in a program that is actually working.

And given that same track record, I’m not surprised that our health and human services department doesn’t care to speak up for the best interests of these particular medical patients. We’re talking about children with severe epileptic disorders, late-stage cancer patients, AIDS patients, patients with mental illness and so many other symptoms and illnesses and conditions.

For many of us, medical marijuana was a choice born of desperation because all other available treatments had failed. I know access to the right strains and the right marijuana products through my caregiver in the medical marijuana program enables me to do many things including critiquing Commissioner Mayhew and DHHS in this blog.

I get a nuanced level of care from my caregiver that I could not get on a recreational market — I couldn’t even get that level of care from a dispensary. Don’t get me wrong — dispensaries are great, especially for certain patients. Some of us, though, are dealing with combinations of conditions that warrant ongoing monitoring and adjusting, as well as regular consultation time.

And privacy.

I’ve found that the caregiver model suits my particular needs better than the dispensary model; therefore, I think it’s fair to draw the conclusion that retail recreational market will be even less capable of tailoring to my individual needs than the dispensaries or caregivers.

I didn’t go the hearing myself Tuesday, but I am a patient member of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, which is how I know the medical marijuana program is self-sustaining. To me, it looks like the department doesn’t want to keep up with its end of the program.

For example, in spite of having staff available and program-funded cash on hand to invest in more medical marijuana program staff, the department hasn’t updated program regulations since 2013. Statute has changed since 2013, but DHHS regulations haven’t.  So when I hear that a DHHS official is testifying that the program is somehow unmanageable, I hear a department saying it didn’t keep up with the task at hand and doesn’t want to be held responsible.

I hear a health and human services department saying it doesn’t want a program that serves the severely afflicted, pays for itself, and garners sales tax revenue. Hello?!

MMCM’s director, Catherine Lewis attended the hearing. Lewis, a caregiver, is a terrific advocate for the program, and her advocacy includes welcoming more regulation for the program.  She and other MMCM members dedicated considerable time this summer and fall to drafting proposed legislation — as they have in previous years — that included recommendations for increased, program-financed regulation.

Lewis was dismayed by the department’s testimony Tuesday, and was forced to adjust her own in response. I’ll conclude with some of her words to the committee:

Since 2011 caregivers and dispensaries have been trying to improve the program and relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services, submitting bills to make positive changes. It’s very discouraging that the department charged to oversee the program has no faith or desire to improve the program and work with those involved. (Catherine Lewis)

Endnote to the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation:  Medical marijuana program aside, I’m curious to know to what extent officials have confirmed the viability of the recreational marijuana market under a President Trump/Attorney General Sessions administration. From the news clips I’ve seen, the administration may support states’ rights where medical marijuana is concerned, but Trump and Sessions have both gone on the record saying they do NOT support states’ rights regarding recreational marijuana use.  

I don’t agree with their position, and I have my doubts about the longterm viability of the Trump administration. However, before investing much time or money into establishing such a market, I’d want confirmation from the current “law and order” administration that such efforts won’t be for naught. Should this administration ever stabilize, I don’t doubt that Sessions will lock any states with recreational marijuana in his sights.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.