“My opinion of it is, as long as the regulations are in place, and with doctor’s referrals, I’m OK with it,” Hayes said Friday morning, patting her baby’s back while two siblings played nearby.
“There are far more addictive things out there,” she added. “As long as it’s handled properly, I don’t have a problem with it.”
About 60 residents from the community of about 1,200 filed into the Frenchville community center last Tuesday night, Oct. 19, for the educational public forum given jointly by the organization and the town. They brought their questions and thoughts on the new dispensary’s plans for safety measures, business policies, client anonymity, and student education in local schools.
Leo Trudel is a principal officer and one of the directors of Safe Alternatives, which was approved in June by the Department of Health and Human Services to open a dispensary storefront in Fort Kent with cultivation in St. David, but later changed the location for both to the Frenchville property.
Trudel began the meeting by introducing himself as interested residents slowly filled the room, then launched a slide show detailing the members of Safe Alternative’s board, their policies, products, patient use, and security, as well as information pertaining to the law. Trudel called it a “frequently-asked-question type of forum,” and offered to answer all questions once the slide show had finished.
Members of the board of directors for Safe Alternatives include Leo Trudel, his wife Julie Trudel, Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake, Diana White, PhD, Jean English, PhD, Jared Cyr, and Aaron Cyr. Trudel has degrees in education and psychology, he said, with a specialty in alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and is a former police officer. He also holds a Masters in finance and MBA and is a PhD candidate in business administration. English holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology as well as a master’s and PhD in plant and soil sciences, while White, said Trudel, has taught pharmacology and is a specialist in mental health and substance abuse.
“We brought on individuals like Diana to help bring education to patients,” said Trudel.
Trudel asked attendees to put themselves in the positions of individuals in chronic pain every day.
“That’s what this is about - this is about individuals in Aroostook County who are suffering and want an alternative to prescription drugs.”
He also said that he wanted to create a relationship with the community and to answer questions about patient use, safety, and security as overseen by law enforcement and DHHS, with whom he said the organization had been working, along with the Maine Drug Enforcement agency, when developing plans for the dispensary.
Residents listened patiently to the presentation and then unleashed a barrage of questions, most simply curious, seeking clarity on issues such as state versus federal regulations and how the non-profit organization would educate local schools on the medical nature of the dispensary. Some were adamant in proclaiming that the dispensary not be allowed into the town, even questioning the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, Percy Thibeault, as to how the organization’s plans could have come so far without town residents being made aware.
“I’m on the fence here, but we’ve been watching him (Trudel) invest over there – where was the special meeting before?” said one audience member. “It’s too late. We can delay it, but we can’t stop it.”
Residents questioned why Frenchville was the non-profit’s chosen location of the dispensary. The major factor was a prohibitive cost to run in Fort Kent, Trudel said, adding that he owned the property at 479 US Rte. 1.
Some residents spoke out in favor of medical marijuana being available in Frenchville, while some were mostly concerned about the security of the facility itself, and how quickly the law could respond if there was a break-in. Trudel said the facility would have state-of-the-art security with digital alarm systems and sensors hooked up to the police and sheriff’s departments, as well as to his personal phone and two other phones, all of whom could respond.
He also confirmed a concern some residents had - that medical marijuana is not legal at the federal level, but is legal at the state level, thereby allowing U.S. Border Patrol officers patrolling the area’s roads to take legal action on medical card-carrying patients who may be stopped while traveling with their prescription.
Questions asked by the audience also focused on the cost of the medical marijuana and how a sliding scale would work for those on social security and disability, and ensuring no cross-selling happens if a patient has reached the limit prescribed by a doctor. A tracking system like those at pharmacies is in place in Maine, Trudel explained, to ensure that cardholders could not purchase more than the prescribed amount during a certain time frame at any dispensary, to help prevent abuse. Like a prescription at a pharmacy, they could also pick up their medicine at another dispensary if needed, and the purchase would be recorded in the state system, Trudel said.
An herbologist, who was filming the meeting, said that 87 percent of America uses herbs.
“Marijuana is an herb,” he said.
A woman attending the meeting compared it to sage tea, which she said she’d recently discovered fights hot flashes.
Some compared the dispensary to having a liquor store nearby, stating there was no difference, while others asked about discretion to patients with medical cards. Trudel said that those wishing for anonymity could option for discrete rural delivery.
“This is not pot – it’s not addicts that will go buy marijuana there,” said one man in the audience. “It’s your mother, father, sister, brother, who is dying, and in pain.”
Voices were raised occasionally, both in support and in concern.
Ross Paradis, who along with wife Judy had sent in letters of support for Safe Alternative’s application, commended Trudel on an “excellent presentation.” He also summed up his feelings on the subject, telling the audience, “If I could alleviate some pain with marijuana, I would.”
The disagreement between town residents seemed to be not with the validity of the medical use itself, but with the sense of “not in my backyard,” as one audience member put it, as well as the town’s lack of involvement with Safe Alternatives’ process of establishing their new business.
Despite a recent press release from Safe Alternatives to the St. John Valley Times announcing the organization’s plans for their new dispensary address, and that it was approved by both the state and the town, Thibeault said recently that the organization has jumped the gun. A prior public meeting was held among the board of selectmen on Tuesday, Sept. 28, he said, in which board members disagreed with the announcement.
“It’s not a done deal,” said Thibeault. “We made it clear that we did not approve of what he wrote. Frenchville did not approve of what Trudel put in that press release.”
Trudel said again at Wednesday’s meeting that the organization had secured approval from both the DHHS and the town of Frenchville for the new location of its dispensary and cultivation site, a fact which town manager Phil Levesque, sitting near the front of the room, did not dispute. However, the process taken for approval seems to be up for debate, according to Levesque and Thibeault.
“The approval from the town was for a building permit,” Levesque said on Monday. “The board never took a stance for it or against it.”
During the course of the evening, Trudel invited members of the town, several times, to be on a combined board made up of both Safe Alternatives group members and Frenchville community members. He also said the target date to begin production of marijuana products, including tinctures and “m-edibles,” or edible products for those who were too sick to smoke or wished not to, would probably be available in January.
In November 2009, Maine voters approved a bill that changed the state’s laws on medical use of marijuana, replacing the prior and more informal system. Maine Gov. Baldacci signed further amendments into law on April 9 of this year. One medical dispensary was selected in each of the state’s eight public health districts after the Maine DHHS announced an open application period in May for non-profit corporations to become dispensaries for growing and dispensing prepared marijuana to registered patients, under the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act.
A new set of rules governing the program was released on Aug. 4 by Maine DHHS, giving clear definitions of debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Crohn’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, as well as chronic pain which has not responded to ordinary medical or surgical treatment for more than six months. The rules, available on the Maine government’s website, also define who qualifies as a registered patient, registered primary caregiver, and enforcement of the government regulations.
A few audience members asked, toward the end of the forum, if there was anything they could do to stop the dispensary from coming to town, citing the fact that the Frenchville board of selectmen had voted 54 percent 46 percent in late 2009 to not allow the organization to set up base.
“Really, at this point, no,” said Trudel, who added that he would, if needed, obtain legal counsel. “I have a good faith effort going right from the very beginning. I didn’t hide anything,” he said.
After most of the public had left and the meeting reconvened downstairs in the community center’s basement with a few interested residents looking on, Frenchville board members voted unanimously to have “a special town meeting to enact a moratorium,” which they agreed would be publicized.
“We can’t knock them out of town – the law is there,” Thibeault said.
On Monday, Oct. 25, Levesque said that an emergency meeting took place Friday morning at the Frenchville town office. The St. John Valley Times did not receive notice of the meeting, though officials insists one was sent. At the meeting, which was not attended by any members of the public or by media, board members discussed legal counsel options and set a date for a future special meeting to deal with the public’s questions about safety and look at what Safe Alternative’s application is like, as well as to see if people want to discuss a 180-day moratorium on the organization setting up dispensary operations. The meeting is tentatively set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10, as part of the regular town meeting at the Frenchville town office.
Levesque, who is coincidentally retiring, said Monday he wants to make sure the town is following safety rules.
“It’s all new for us,” he added.
Thibeault, who is a law enforcement official by trade, also said on Monday that if the dispensary were to follow all rules and regulations, he “would be OK with it.” His concern, he added, was about the process taken by Safe Alternatives to establish the dispensary in Frenchville after having applied to operate out of Fort Kent and St. David.