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Dispute arises over timing of N.H. medical marijuana ID cards

The attorney general’s office is advising against issuing identification cards this summer to New Hampshire residents eligible to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana for medicinal purposes under a new state law.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael Brown argued in a Feb. 13 memo that New Hampshire’s law only allows the patients to obtain marijuana from dispensaries, which won’t be operating for at least another year.

Brown wrote the memo at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is preparing rules to implement the law Gov. Maggie Hassan signed last July. The law requires the department to adopt rules by July 23 on application forms and procedures to issue identification cards to eligible users, but does not require the department to issue them.

Brown argued that without operating dispensaries, cardholders would have no legal means to obtain marijuana. The department intends to abide by Brown’s advice and wait to issue the cards, which is upsetting advocates and the law’s sponsors.

Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, argued the cards protect holders from arrest if they buy the drug illegally. He also said people who benefit from marijuana use shouldn’t have to wait and that lawmakers who worked on the final compromise language for the law last year understood that the cards would be issued ahead of the dispensaries operating once the option to grow marijuana at home was deleted from the legislation at Hassan’s insistence.

Brown’s memo “was out of the blue from our perspective,” Simon said Monday.

Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she also believes the cards provide a modest protection to cardholders.

“As I read the statute and as I understood what the sponsors are thinking, if you have a card, you have protection,” she said.

But Sen. John Reagan, one of the law’s sponsors, said he doesn’t believe the cards protect holders until they buy marijuana from a dispensary. However, Reagan said the cards should be issued as soon as possible to show progress in implementing the law.

Simon also criticized the department for proposing to hold hearings twice a year on petitions to add medical conditions to the list of eligible illnesses qualifying a patient to possess marijuana. The law calls for a case-by-case review, he said. A blanket approval of a condition doesn’t address individual differences, he said.

Reagan, who chairs the legislative administrative rules committee, said if the department submits rules that don’t adhere to the law, the committee can object and shift the legal burden to the department to prove if challenged that it is following legislative intent.

“The intention was to bring relief to very sick people,” said Reagan, a Deerfield Republican.

Michael Holt, the department’s rules coordinator, said yesterday that the department will be posting draft rules on its website tomorrow and seek public comment until March 14. Holt said the department may make changes based on the feedback before formally submitting the rules for legislative review.

The public will have another opportunity to comment later this spring at a hearing on the rules.

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