AUGUSTA — State lawmakers who are working to launch Maine’s adult-use cannabis industry have eliminated all references to social clubs from a proposed overhaul of the Marijuana Legalization Act.
Voters approved social clubs as part of the legalization referendum in 2016, but lawmakers have repeatedly voted for delays in an effort to keep Maine from being the first state to license gathering places for marijuana users.
“No other state has licensed social clubs,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the implementation committee. “This is clearly the law, but it passed by the narrowest of margins. We ought to go slow and be conservative.”
On Wednesday, the committee voted 10-4 to eliminate references to social club licensing in one of a series of straw votes on its adult-use implementation bill. A final committee vote is planned for Friday.
The committee also voted down a plan to share the state’s marijuana tax revenues with communities that agree to host a licensed cultivation, processing or retail sales business.
It had initially proposed giving towns a cut of the state taxes, but the bill failed to survive a veto by Gov. Paul LePage.
In justifying his veto, LePage did not refer to the revenue-sharing proposal, but House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said the plan didn’t sit well with Republicans, who believe sales tax authority belongs with the state.
In its second attempt at passing legislation, the committee opted to replace local revenue-sharing with giving host towns the right to assess municipal impact fees to cover any potential cost increases, such as added police protection.
But the committee also voted that down Wednesday, in hopes of getting a bill past LePage, either by winning his signature or at least pacifying the Republican House caucus that stymied the veto override efforts last fall.
Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, voted against the impact-fees concession, although he and Portland city officials had expected it, knowing that Republicans would kill the bill if it called for expanding local revenue options.
“We are pushing the cost off on our local taxpayers, and that’s not right,” Jorgensen said. “We will definitely see higher costs.”
But other lawmakers, including Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, and Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, said host towns will see their property tax revenues rise as marijuana businesses set up shop.
“In some cases, we could be talking millions of dollars of assets,” Ackley said.
The committee is moving quickly to reach compromises on hot-button topics such as revenue sharing, personal-grow limitations, consolidation of the administration of adult-use and medical marijuana rules, and social clubs.
On Wednesday, the committee voted to place both the recreational and medical marijuana programs under the state Department of Administration and Financial Services. Each program would have its own rules, enforced by the department.
Medical marijuana supporters have opposed efforts to blend the two programs, saying consolidation in other states has led to the erosion of medical marijuana protections. Proponents of both programs say they don’t want that in Maine.
On Wednesday, lawmakers on the committee that oversees Maine’s medical marijuana programs agreed to the departmental transfer and some consolidation, as long as oversight didn’t end up in the bureau that regulates alcohol and lottery sales.
Medical marijuana is medicine, not an intoxicant, they said. The implementation committee had initially refused to rule out the alcohol bureau as a future home for blended programs, but changed course after hearing from fellow lawmakers.
Out of all of its compromises, the implementation committee has been willing to give up the most political ground on social clubs, making it a symbol of how far, and how quickly, it was willing to compromise with marijuana critics.
The first bill to overhaul the voter-approved legalization law proposed delaying social club licenses until a year after all other licenses were issued, but LePage vetoed it. The second attempt called for delaying social club licenses until 2023.
But Wednesday, the implementation committee voted 10-4 to eliminate the social club license altogether. Katz said he believed that most people who voted “yes” in the narrow referendum victory didn’t factor social clubs into their decision.
Most referendum supporters wanted a law that would allow adults to safely and legally buy, grow or use a reasonable amount of recreational marijuana, Katz said. The social club license was buried in the backup literature, he said.
The committee vote doesn’t prevent a future state legislature from allowing social club licenses, Katz said. Eighty-five years after the end of prohibition, Maine still uses legislation to try to perfect its alcohol laws, he said. The latest implementation legislation is undoubtedly the first of many marijuana bills, he said.
Like many other states, Maine has had its share of underground marijuana-friendly clubs, and certain parks and beaches are popular spots to use marijuana with different degrees of discretion.
Current law bans public cultivation or consumption, which doesn’t give the 36 million people who visit Maine each year a place to use any cannabis that they might buy when here, because most hotels ban smoking inside rooms.
Club advocates have said pot lounges would give tourists a legal place to use the pot they buy here and keep them out of public parks and beaches. But opponents say club patrons must eventually leave, increasing the risk of impaired driving.
A review of other states’ marijuana laws and regulations revealed that marijuana clubs remain uncharted territory nationally. Some state laws are silent on the matter and leave it up to towns, but no state has issued a social club license.