Pot use in social clubs under review

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In this Nov. 21, 2014 file photo, former U.S. Marine Sgt. Ryan Begin smokes medical marijuana at his home in Belfast.

Maine could be the first state in the country to license marijuana social clubs, but the pot would have to be consumed in the club, not smoked.

The proposed adult-use marijuana bill under consideration in Augusta now would push club licensing off until at least June 2019, about a year after Maine’s first retail stores are likely to open. While not thrilled with this delay, most legalization advocates say they are just happy the club license was not stripped completely out of the bill, which is a legislative rewrite of last year’s successful citizen initiative.

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The bill does not expressly prohibit smoking in the clubs, but it also doesn’t carve out an exemption to the state’s no-smoking law, which bans smoking of any kind, including vaping, in public places like bars or restaurants. That means the club would be limited to the sale of pot edibles or tinctures that patrons would have to use on site, said state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the committee co-chairman.

“The committee was divided on this issue,” Katz said. “Some of us, including myself, did not want to be the first state to experiment with social clubs because of the public safety concerns. Others said it was going to happen anyway — better we recognize it — and appropriately license and regulate them, which is what voters wanted. But we had consensus on keeping our smoking ban intact.”

Maine law currently allows for smoking in cigar bars, but Katz said a majority of committee members didn’t want the proposed marijuana bill to expand that narrow exemption to the state’s smoking laws. But the bill is still in draft form, so it could undergo many changes before it goes to the full Legislature for a vote next month. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the State House.

Advocates in Maine are happy that the bill would allow clubgoers here to buy and use marijuana in the same location, but they argue the 2019 licensing date is too late. They want cannabis social clubs to have the same rights as alcohol and tobacco clubs. A city like Portland should be able to license a marijuana club with a rooftop patio that would allow outdoor smoking, said advocate David Boyer.

“We have social clubs for alcohol, and they are called bars,” said Boyer, the director of the Maine chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project, one of the groups that helped pass the Marijuana Legalization Act last fall. “Bars can have outside smoking patios. And cigar clubs, they certainly allow smoking. Marijuana is safer than either of those substances.”

Boyer’s organization is considering a petition drive in Portland to establish local marijuana social club licensing rules that would be ready to go once the clubs are approved as one means of speeding up the process. That might not be necessary, however, because city officials are thinking along the same lines, and are already planning a fact-finding trip to Denver.

But legalization opponents say social clubs is just one of the reasons they lobbied against the ballot question last year. The leader of Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, Scott Gagnon, has said social clubs would put more impaired drivers on Maine roads. Since no state has yet licensed social clubs, there is no data available on whether they would lead to more traffic accidents or fatalities.

Data on the impact of legalization on traffic safety is mixed.

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. The adult-use law adopted last fall allows adults to grow six plants on their own property or someone else’s, with permission, and have up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in their possession for personal use.

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 pot that they might buy when here since most hotels ban smoking inside rooms. Club advocates have said pot lounges would give tourists a legal place to use the pot they will buy here, and keep them out of the parks and beaches.

But a review of other states’ marijuana laws and regulations reveal that marijuana clubs remain uncharted territory in the national landscape. Even in Colorado, which was the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana, government officials have been wary to license pot clubs, worried that it would invite federal authorities to crack down on a drug that is still illegal under federal law.

Oregon does not allow pot clubs. Alaska and California are considering whether to license social clubs. California, Nevada and Colorado laws do not prohibit clubs, so local governments could agree to grant licenses, but so far, only Colorado City has any licensed social clubs, where a consumer can use pot they bring with them, but even those are under order to shut down by 2023.

Denver just adopted a marijuana social club pilot program, and announced it was ready to begin accepting applications last month, but so far, no one has applied. Would-be club operators claim the rules are too restrictive, banning consumption at places that sell marijuana, essentially making them a bring-your-own venue, and requiring clubs to be twice as far away from schools or playgrounds as bars.

Massachusetts law allows for social clubs in local municipalities, but the newly appointed Cannabis Control Commission will likely take up this issue while it writes state regulations. Loopr, a Denver-based party bus service that bills itself as a mobile cannabis lounge, is targeting Boston for expansion into New England next year, as well as franchises in California and Nevada.

“I always advise clients, you don’t want to be the first at something,” said Andrew Freedman, the former director of marijuana coordination for Colorado who now works as a marijuana consultant. “It’s better to see what other states have done to see what works, and what doesn’t, with marijuana. There’s a lot of public health and safety on the line, and the federal authorities are always watching.”

Freedman’s firm is now taking on state clients to advise them on how to set up their adult-use markets, and would like to find work in Maine.

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