AUGUSTA — A bill to delay implementation of the Marijuana Legalization Act until the end of the legislative session died Thursday.
The bill failed to win even a simple majority in the House, losing 65-81, prompting the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to declare it dead despite the fact that the Senate didn’t actually vote on it. As a result, the moratorium adopted by the Legislature last year to delay commercial aspects of the voter-approved referendum is now lapsed. But lawmakers disagree about what that might actually mean.
Even Katz, the Senate president of the committee tasked with overhauling the voter initiative, said the failure to extend the moratorium will have no practical impact on the public because the state doesn’t have a licensing system in place. The act requires anyone who wants to cultivate, sell or make marijuana products for commercial sale to obtain a state license, and that can’t happen until the state creates a licensing system, he said.
“While a moratorium extension would have been helpful, this is just a minor blip,” Katz said. “The committee will be right back to work tomorrow morning as we move toward a revised overall bill. We remain optimistic.”
Katz wanted to extend the moratorium until April 18, the final day of the current legislative session, to give his committee time to create a full-blown regulatory structure and to send a message to municipalities around the state that had wanted the legal protection of a state moratorium. Some towns have passed temporary or permanent bans of their own, but others had wanted to avoid the legal costs until the state had finalized its regulations.
Towns worry that people who want to apply for an adult-use cannabis license will apply for a local permit to open up shop now that the state moratorium has lapsed.
While would-be pot entrepreneurs need a state license to get into business, submitting a local application early – before a town has crafted its own marijuana regulations – might put them at the front of the licensing line in a town that may only want to give out one or two local permits, municipalities say. They could also claim their application pre-dated local regulations, which would undercut those towns that want to adopt rules that are stricter than the state’s.
The courts might not agree with the applicant’s arguments, but a legal battle over pre-market applications could still cost the communities money, towns claimed.
“Municipalities are likely to be faced with a flood of ‘foot in the door’ type applications,” Garrett Corbin, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, told the adult-use committee recently. “Even though both state and local licenses are required under the law, and the state is not expected to have its licensing operations in effect by that time, there are a host of legal uncertainties surrounding the proper municipal management of applications for local licenses.”
Private attorneys advising Maine towns without local moratoriums have warned that any actions taken on pre-market applications can be challenged in court, Corbin said.
Rep. Teresa Pierce, the House chair of the marijuana committee, highlighted these local anxieties as she lobbied for the bill on the House floor.
“We anticipate a bill coming back soon, but if we don’t have a short-term moratorium in place we are unable to really protect our municipalities,” Pierce told colleagues. “Municipalities are confused. They are wondering what’s going on. They are asking us to lead … A short-term moratorium gives them some comfort that while we are doing our work, we have that in place.”
But House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, told House colleagues that he didn’t like the idea of an extension when he knew that statewide rule making would take up to 10 months. “I feel as if this (bill) puts us in a bit of a box to pass another bill,” Fredette said. He had pushed for a much longer delay for the moratorium extension, through January 2019, which would accommodate the projected state rule making. That would also be after Gov. Paul LePage leaves office.
LePage vetoed the committee’s bill to overhaul the voter-approved legalization law last November. He worried legalization would put Maine in conflict with federal laws, which could put public and private investment in this new industry at risk if the Trump administration cracks down. He also cited concerns over impaired driving, impacts on the medical marijuana program, if the program would pay for itself and the normalization of drug use among Maine youths.
The marijuana committee meets Friday in Augusta to continue refining its latest implementation bill. Pierce said the committee will continue to work with LePage, fellow lawmakers and stakeholder groups to find a compromise on the sections of the bill that sparked opposition last fall. It has already voted to push possible consideration of pot social clubs out to at least five years, one major sticking point for legalization critics.
Some of those who opposed the moratorium extension want to see Maine promptly implement the Marijuana Legalization Act as approved by voters. Others echoed the concerns of Fredette, who believed that a short-term moratorium would create a false sense of urgency that would put pressure on lawmakers and the administration to quickly pass the committee’s omnibus bill, once it is finished.