Maine House passes bill that would launch recreational marijuana market

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The latest bid to launch Maine’s adult-use marijuana market cleared its toughest political hurdle Tuesday with a veto-proof margin that bodes well for the compromise bill.

If the bill continues on its current path, Mainers can expect to see the first recreational business licenses issued in the spring of 2019. It allows recreational retailers to buy marijuana from former medical growers, a provision that will help them stock their shelves and potentially get Maine’s recreational market up and running very quickly.

But Mainers wouldn’t be able to buy marijuana and consume it in a social club, because that option was stripped out of the bill to make it more politically palatable. They also would have to reduce the size of their home grow from six to three plants, which lawmakers hope will reduce diversion into the black market. Towns will get to decide if they will allow recreational marijuana businesses in their towns, but they won’t get a piece of the tax spoils, which all would go to the state.

“We worked hard to compromise and find common ground,” said Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, House chairwoman of the marijuana committee that crafted the bill. “Our town officials, our local businesses, our parents and families and communities that each of us represent are all asking us to put a reasonable, highly structured regulatory system in place. … They recognize the status quo just isn’t what we should be doing.”

Lawmakers have been trying to hammer out an overhaul of the Marijuana Legalization Act referendum since voters approved it by a narrow margin in November 2016. That effort got a huge boost Tuesday when the Maine House of Representatives voted 112-34 in favor of a committee bill that was more conservative than the first referendum rewrite, which failed to overcome a veto from Gov. Paul LePage.

EVEN SOME POT SUPPORTERS DISLIKE BILL

Several staunch marijuana opponents voted in favor of the bill, saying it is better than allowing the unregulated black market to continue unchecked. Rep. Jeff Hanley, R- Pittston, said the referendum handed the Legislature a lemon, and it was now up to lawmakers to make lemonade. Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, said she voted against legalization, and as a mother she wanted a bill that would implement stricter regulations on marijuana sales.

“I need this to be as strict and as stringent as possible,” Espling testified. “I need real protections in this for my family. I think Mainers are asking for that. Whether or not marijuana is legal, it’s been passed. … As long as its determined to be legal, I think we need to make it as strict as possible for the protection of Maine families. Let’s get us off on good footing.”

A few cannabis supporters voted against it, like Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, saying it would hurt small marijuana farmers and the state medical marijuana program. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who led the effort to sustain LePage’s veto last fall, opposed the bill, saying Maine shouldn’t legalize sales as long as marijuana is federally illegal, and disparaged the referendum process, asking lawmakers if they would legalize heroin if voters approved it at the polls.

“Referendum issues have compromised the work we do in this body,” Fredette lamented. “Marijuana is no different.”

Marijuana lobbyists are divided on the bill. Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine, which wrote the referendum question, opposes the reduction in home grow and the lack of a cultivation cap, a decision that will drive marijuana prices so low that everyday Mainers would get driven out of the business by rich growers that can ride out a glut. The Maine chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project remains neutral on the bill, decrying the loss of social clubs and the plant count reduction, but eager for legal sales to finally happen.

VETO-PROOF MARGIN, BUT ‘NO GUARANTEES’

A number of House Republicans were swayed by the compromises included in the new version of the legalization overhaul, Espling said. The committee changed its tax plan from a straight 20 percent retail sales tax to a combination sales-excise tax structure that makes sure the program will pay for itself, cut a local option sales tax that might have encouraged towns to approve marijuana businesses to boost tax revenue, and eliminated strict rulemaking deadlines, she said.

The elimination of social club licensing from the bill – even one that delayed licensing until after the market was up and running – also helped, Espling said.

“It’s a good vote margin,” Espling said. “It could still change, depending on how strongly the governor feels and what the marijuana lobby does. There are no guarantees.”

The 112-34 House vote is a veto-proof margin, which sets this bill up for a more successful future than last year’s effort to launch the market. Last year’s bill was initially passed by the House with an 81-50 special session vote, but 17 lawmakers who supported the bill reversed their positions during the November effort to override LePage’s veto. The final tally on the veto override was 74-62. It takes two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature to override a gubernatorial veto.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where lawmakers could vote on it as early as Wednesday. Bill supporters don’t expect any roadblocks in that chamber, which passed a more liberal version of the bill last year with a veto-proof margin. If passed, the bill goes to LePage, who would have 10 days to decide whether to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature and avoid a veto showdown that the vote margin suggests he would lose.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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