Legislative committee votes against legal marijuana bill

AUGUSTA — A bid to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Maine was imperiled by a strong negative vote Tuesday in the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, though the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, insisted that the issue is not dead.

With two members absent, the committee voted 8-3 against LD 1229, An Act to Regulate and Tax Marijuana. The three lawmakers in the minority, led by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said they would urge the full Legislature to place a general referendum question about legalizing recreational use of marijuana on this November’s statewide ballot.

Those who voted against the bill cited numerous reasons ranging from being uncomfortable with legalized marijuana to worries about state government’s ability to develop a framework to regulate it in a timely manner.

“This bill proposes sweeping changes in terms of public safety, public health and tax policy,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a retired police officer who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and who was instrumental in lobbying for the state’s medical marijuana law. “I would move with a lot more trepidation today than I did in 1999 [during the medical marijuana debate]. In good conscience I cannot support the sweeping changes in this bill. This requires a lot of work.”

Chief in some lawmakers’ mind was the prospect of creating a framework within state government to regulate the production and sale of marijuana. Those concerns were fueled by a May 7 letter from the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which detailed what implementing a Bureau of Marijuana, Regulation, Licensing and Enforcement would entail.

Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett said creating that office would require the hiring of a director, an administrative assistant, a full-time attorney and at least two enforcement officers. Though the bill calls for some proceeds from excise and sales taxes to support those functions, Millett wrote that some start-up funding would be required in his department and at Maine Revenue Services.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the Senate chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said that if recreational marijuana use is to be legalized, he hopes it happens through the Legislature as opposed to by citizen initiative. Gerzofsky was a co-sponsor of LD 1229, even though he voted against it Tuesday.

“We want to be able to drive the boat instead of being passengers,” he said. “We have to remember that the people can bring it to us on their own. Are we going to direct this bus down the road, or are we going to be passengers?”

David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said his group intends to collect enough signatures to put a marijuana legalization measure to statewide referendum in November 2016 in hopes of benefiting from strong voter turnout associated with the next presidential election.

Wilson wrote a wide-ranging amendment and presented it to the committee on Tuesday. The amendment would have required the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to collect bids for up to 10 contracts statewide for the cultivation of marijuana as well as a single distribution arm. Unlike Russell’s bill, Wilson’s amendment would not have legalized growing marijuana on a small scale or for personal use.

Wilson also would have routed proceeds from a 7 percent sales tax and $50-per-ounce excise tax differently than Russell proposed, with 50 percent of the revenues flowing to substance abuse prevention programs and law enforcement agencies.

Russell has estimated that taxing and regulating marijuana could generate up to $14 million a year in tax revenues, three-quarters of which she proposed putting in the General Fund, which supports the majority of state government. Wilson agreed with some other lawmakers that either his amendment or Russell’s original bill would demand a major implementation effort that would be neither quick nor cheap.

“I believe in my heart that if this did go to referendum, that it would pass,” said Wilson. “We’d be in the same position that Colorado finds itself in, scrambling to craft regulation. They’re faced with quite a predicament, really.”

Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana through a citizen initiative last year.

Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, a retired police officer, said he has long thought marijuana would become legal someday, but not on the scale Russell proposed, which would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces. Marks also questioned how anyone could grow six plants, which Russell proposes to be legalized, without producing pounds of pot as opposed to ounces.

“We’d be going from felony status today to total legalization tomorrow,” said Marks. “That’s a lot for me.”

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said he suspected most voters have their minds made up about whether they want to legalize marijuana and that it won’t matter what framework legalization comes with.

“This has become a yes-or-no proposition for most people,” he said.

Russell reacted with dismay to the committee’s vote, though she said an up-or-down vote on a simple referendum question without a complicated bill behind it might be easier for some lawmakers in the full Legislature to support. However, creating a referendum question requires a two-thirds vote.

“We still have a fight ahead,” said Russell, who vowed that despite Tuesday’s committee vote, she will ask for a roll-call vote in the Legislature. “This is a much simpler proposal. It comes down down to legislative control over the framework. We can set up the regulatory structure if they ask us to.”

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Comments

Robyn Belcher's picture

Re: Jeff. I agree with you.

Re: Jeff.
I agree with you. Casual pot use isn't the problem though. Chronic use is. Most of the time this conversation comes up though chronic use is really what is being referred to.

Robyn Belcher's picture

The difference between

The difference between correlation and causation is important. Does marijuana cause bad things to happen to kids (or adults) or are bad things happening and marijuana is used to help them cope? I don't think people smoke pot because they have really good, fulfilling lives.

 's picture

a third option.

you make it sound as tho every pot user has problems. if someone enjoys a good lobster from time to time are they unfulfilled the rest of the time? its not all ecsapisim, not every conversation is an attempt to run from lonlieness. i think for most its simply a change in perspective, an possible enhancement to whats already going on around them.

Amedeo Lauria's picture

Is there a glimmer of hope for our legislature?

As a 30 year military veteran and 10 year teacher, I have seen the negative effects of drug usage on our youth. I believe what I see and I've seen a lot.

No positive results will come from legalization of cannabis; no matter how "natural" proponents of marijuana say it is.

Just ask any parent who has a son or daughter lost to drug use.

Glad to see that some common sense is bubbling to the surface in Augusta.

 's picture

not even close to true

no parent has ever in the history of the human race lost a child to marijuana. ever. as a at risk youth worker for 15 years i can tell you every kid i ever worked with said weed was eaiser to get then cigs or alcohol. regulation works far better at contoll then banning does. how about not incarcerating nonviolent people whose only crime is somking pot. for that to stop happening would be a postitve result of legalisation.

Amedeo Lauria's picture

Jeff...

I'm not talking specifically about loss of life; although I don't the rates of possible fatalities while driving under the influence of marijuana or operation of heavy equipment.

I'm talking about loss of full potential. Drop out rate from high school. Dismissal from the military for drug usage; for very valid reasons...would you want someone to work on your helicopter under the influence?

I would think that you, most of all, should see the sad results of drug usage among our youth.

I know their are a myriad of reasons why children become at risk, but why should we add one to the mix.

Just my opinion, and apparently based on the vote at the legislature one held by many informed decision makers.

 's picture

not on the same page

the legislators in the article are quoted as "it being to much work" as the reason not to pass the bill. reaching ones full potential is the responsibility of the individual not the goverment. i do not see Marijuana use to be all that detrimintal to ones potential. i belive you have experienced individuals who are depressed and using pot to self medicate. thus you equate pot use with lack of drive. i would not want anyone under the influence of anything working on my helicopter, that goes for legal antidepressants as well. legalisation would not result in everyone comming to work high just like legal alcohol dosent mean every worker out there is drunk.

i belive legalisation will make it more difficult for kids to get thier hands on it. the corner store cashier has alot more to lose then your corner drug dealer, who by the way would be put out of business.

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