House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, says the Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee must draft legislation that’s tougher on people who drive high, crack down on loopholes in the state’s medical marijuana program and kill a tax-sharing provision for cities and towns that host recreational growing operations or retail stores. (Derek Davis/Portlande Press Herald)
Republicans intend to send lawmakers charged with drafting Maine’s recreational marijuana rules back to the drawing board in the wake of the Gov. Paul LePage’s veto.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation must get tougher on people who drive high, crack down on loopholes in the medical marijuana program and kill a tax-sharing provision for towns that host recreational growing operations or retail stores if it wants the support of LePage and the House Republicans that scuttled the committee’s special session legislation Monday.
“If they don’t, they’ll get more of the same: they’ll get another veto,” said Fredette on Tuesday. “Rank-and-file House Republicans are frustrated. Our districts think this is moving too fast. If they don’t reach out to House Republicans, who have been the most powerful force in Augusta for the past five years and the only group that is willing to work closely with the governor, they’ll end up with another veto, and we will sustain that one as easily as we did this one.”
The proposed implementation bill died in the House on Monday after it fell 17 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override LePage’s veto.
The 74-62 vote tally showed the bill had actually lost support over the two weeks since the House approved it by an 81-50 special session vote. Fredette persuaded five Republican colleagues who had supported the bill to switch their votes, and got 10 who had missed the special session vote to show up for the override vote. Two House Republicans on the marijuana committee who had supported the bill in the special session were absent for the override vote.
Across the aisle, Rep. Scott Hamman, D-South Portland, flipped to no. He once served on the committee, but lost his seat after posting a drunken Facebook rant.
Bill supporters said it was too soon to discuss the future of the adult-use marijuana in Maine. The chairmen of the marijuana committee plan to meet with the top-ranking members from both parties in the next week to map out a strategy. One of the biggest questions they will face is whether to try to tweak the bill they have, or begin again from scratch, said House committee chairwoman Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth.
On Tuesday, the day after the override failure, Pierce was still disappointed by the defeat. She expressed frustration, however, with Fredette’s laundry list of demands to get House Republican support for an implementation bill, saying that some of his demands were impossible and others had already been discussed, at great length, with House Republicans who sat on the marijuana committee. All but one of them rallied behind the committee bill, she said.
“We have worked on this bill for months, brought in experts from Maine and around the country to talk about these issues and debated them until we reached consensus on them,” Pierce said. “To say in the eleventh hour that we haven’t addressed them, to suggest he is bringing up things we haven’t thought of, haven’t worked through, it is very frustrating. Where was he in May? Where was he in July? Doesn’t he talk to his committee members?”
One of Fredette’s demands to get House support was stronger impaired driving laws, including tougher penalties and a standard method to test if a driver is driving high. The committee discussed this with Colorado’s former marijuana czar, Andrew Freedman, and learned that, unlike alcohol, there is no widely accepted test to determine if a person is physically impaired by marijuana because it can be found in the system long after its effects have worn off, Pierce said.
Freedman and law enforcement told the committee that it was impairment, not the physical presence of marijuana in the system, that stood up in court, based on current testing technology. That is why the committee bill earmarked 6 percent of state tax revenues collected from marijuana cultivation and sales to fund the hiring and training of additional drug recognition experts, whose assessment of marijuana impairment can be successfully used to prosecute stoned drivers.
“Everybody wants there to be a test, but it doesn’t exist, not yet,” Pierce said. “The minority leader would know that if he’d asked us. He has to trust that we did our job.”
Some marijuana advocates remain hopeful the committee can amend the bill when the Legislature returns in January without delaying the launch of the late fall 2018, adult-use market expected under the committee bill. Others hope the underlying ballot-box law, which is generally more liberal and favorable to Maine’s medical marijuana caregivers than the committee bill, goes into full effect after a legislative moratorium expires in February 2018.
Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine, a marijuana advocacy group that wrote the referendum question that voters approved last fall, says a growing group of lawmakers would like to see the ballot-box law in place, without excessive state tinkering, but Fredette said that will not happen. The first thing he plans to do when reconvening in January will be to introduce legislation to extend the February 2018 moratorium until January 2019.
A similar bill introduced by LePage during the special session failed, but that was when committee bill supporters had hoped their bill would pass.
“I think we all know we won’t get a new bill in place by February, and we certainly won’t get new rules put in place,” Fredette said. “And if the committee process showed us one thing, it showed us the referendum law had plenty of holes in it. We’re going to extend the moratorium. I don’t see that we have any other choice.”
While lawmakers sort out the market’s bureaucratic future, the personal-use sections of the ballot-box law remain in effect, allowing adults to grow up to six mature plants and possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal use. Under current law, however, with the moratorium in effect, no one can buy or sell recreational marijuana, or grow it for commercial sale. People can continue to make “gifts” of marijuana, however, while charging recipients for other goods, like baggies or delivery.