Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein (file [photo) CT Mirror

A divided legislative panel on Tuesday approved regulations to govern the state’s medical marijuana program, a set of rules that drew praise for its comprehensive nature, as well as concerns from legislators worried about conflicts with federal law.

The vote clears the way for the state to begin seeking applications from those hoping to produce and sell marijuana to patients who have certain debilitating conditions and permission from a doctor.

Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein, whose department oversees the program, said many of the rules are intended to create a system similar to that used for dispensing other controlled substances.

He said Connecticut will be unique in the country by requiring that all marijuana sold to patients undergo laboratory testing to provide a profile of the active ingredients. He noted that patients receiving other medications expect to get drugs that aren’t adulterated and that won’t change from month to month.

“We believe no less should be expected from patients using medical marijuana,” he said.

Of the regulations, he said, “I think they’re the best thought-out, they’re the smartest, and they’re the ones that treat this product as a controlled pharmaceutical substance better than anyone else.”

Discussion before the vote by the legislature’s Regulation Review Committee was dominated by lawmakers who voted against the bill that legalized marijuana for palliative purposes, which passed last year. They raised concerns about conflicts between state and federal law, the potential for misuse of the drug, and the message medical marijuana would send to children.

Concerns about federal law

Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said he worried that the extensiveness of the regulations — getting so involved in a medical marijuana industry as to review blueprints of facilities — could invite federal action.

“The federal government’s cracking down all around us, and we’re standing there with a cape in front of a bull,” he said. “State employees are at risk.”

Fasano said he could support more general regulations that allowed people to use medical marijuana as prescribed. “But when we go this far and this much in-your-face, it makes me nervous,” he said.

Fasano also raised questions about the possibility of the federal government targeting financial institutions associated with medical marijuana producers or sellers, potentially making it difficult for those that seek to produce marijuana to raise the funds necessary to get a license. Rubenstein said he wasn’t concerned, saying that, “We expect the competitive market to drive capital towards opportunity, as it always does.”

Robert Clark, special counsel to the state attorney general, said Connecticut’s regulations are more comprehensive than those in many western states, where legal issues have arisen. But he acknowledged that the state could face legal risks, although he added that courts have varied in their positions.

Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, said he had “grave concerns” about the potential for misuse in the future. “Clearly other states have set a terrible precedent,” he said.

Rubenstein said there will be tight controls on the program, including on marketing and advertising, dispensing and how patients become qualified. In addition, he noted, the program will be funded through fees, ensuring that there will be enough personnel to do inspections and regulate the program.

“We will marry this program into the war that we’re having on prescription drug abuse across the range of controlled substances,” he said.

As someone “vehemently opposed” to the policy, Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said he took some comfort in the fact that the regulations were written conservatively, to ensure marijuana is used only by authorized patients. But, he added, “It’s a difficult issue when you have a 12-year-old child that comes home and refers to marijuana as medical marijuana. It’s sort of a punch in the gut to you.”

And Candelora also raised concerns about the state law’s compatibility with federal law.

“We’re boxing ourselves into a potential federal conflict because we are trying to regulate an industry that is, frankly, it’s illegal under federal law,” he said.

What the rules say

The law restricts the use of medical marijuana to people with certain debilitating conditions: cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, cachexia, wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, or damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity.

Additional conditions could be added through legislative action, or through another process in which members of the public petition and a board of physicians and the consumer protection commissioner recommend they be included.

Rubenstein said doctors play a “gatekeeper” role in the program, certifying patients as qualified to use marijuana for palliative purposes. Patients who meet the criteria must register with the Department of Consumer Protection.

The state began registering patients on an interim basis Oct. 1, Rubenstein said, and 881 have been certified by doctors as qualified. But he noted that there are many more patients whose doctors would certify them to use marijuana to ease their suffering except that there are not yet any regulated sources of the drug available.

The adoption of the regulations, which the legislative panel did by voice vote, allows the state to begin an application process for those wishing to produce and sell marijuana.

The state will license between three and 10 marijuana producers. It will cost $25,000 to apply, and those that are approved would be required to pay $75,000 before receiving the license. In addition, producers will be required to have a $2 million escrow account, which could be reduced if they meet certain milestones. Rubenstein said it’s intended to ensure that those that get the licenses are able to provide an uninterrupted supply of marijuana to patients.

The rules for production facilities include requirements that all employees working in an area with marijuana wear pocketless clothing. And each production facility must have procedures for handling product recalls.

The dispensaries that sell marijuana must be open at least 35 hours a week. They’re required to give patients and caregivers information about the law governing the use of marijuana, safe techniques for using it, alternative methods for consuming it, signs and symptoms of substance abuse, and opportunities to participate in substance abuse programs. The information must be approved by the consumer protection commissioner.

The marijuana that patients buy will have brand names — registered with the Consumer Protection department — and serial numbers. The regulations require that the dispensaries put patients’ purchases in opaque packages that don’t indicate that there’s marijuana inside.

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Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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