Public weighs in on marijuana regulations

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Paul T. McCarrier, of Legalize Maine, testifies Tuesday during a hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation at the State House in Augusta.

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard a familiar chorus of impassioned concerns about license preferences, tax rates and local control at an emotional, standing-room-only hearing on a proposed rewrite of Maine’s recreational marijuana law Tuesday.

None of the scores of people who testified – some of whom drove for five hours and then waited for six hours to address lawmakers – thought the bill was perfect, and the crowd was deeply divided on how to improve the legislative overhaul of the Marijuana Legalization Act, which was approved by a citizen referendum with a razor-thin voter margin last fall.

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Medical marijuana caregivers turned out in large numbers for the public hearing before the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee, demanding that the bill be rewritten to include language that had been in the citizen law that would prevent adult-use laws from interfering with the administration of the state’s medical program, which as of last year included about 50,000 patients served by eight state-licensed dispensaries and 3,200 caregivers.

They want to beef up the six-month residency requirement for license applicants to at least five years to give Mainers the best chance to earn a profit from this new industry. People are concerned the industry is going to go to “large, out-of-state interests with a lot of money, essentially carpetbaggers,” said Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, a nonprofit that helped pass the citizen initiative.

Although the law doesn’t cap licenses, caregivers still want their voter-approved license preferences, or at least a fast-track licensing route.

“I believe in a fair market and competition, but it’s only right that people who’ve been in this industry and operated in good standing should be respected,” said Pete Tranchmontagne of Sanford, a caregiver, marijuana events organizer and owner of Uncle Pete’s Re-Leaf. “That should count for something.”

12-PLANT LIMIT CRITICIZED

They want the law to guarantee that any adult Mainer can grow up to six plants for personal use, regardless of the number of people who live at the property, so that families with more than one medical patient or apartment renters can grow their own marijuana. They say a limit of 12 mature marijuana plants for any one property could hurt caregivers and patients.

They also took aim at the dispensaries for wanting to transition from nonprofit operations, which is a requirement of the state’s medical marijuana law, to for-profit companies, a move that dispensaries say is needed to compete with for-profit start-ups and raise investment cash. Caregivers called the provision, a last-minute addition to the bill, a “blatant money grab.”

They also warned against allowing a one-time transfer of medical marijuana plants and products into the recreational market to ease start-up shortages when new recreational license holders are trying to bring their first crops to harvest, a process that could take three to six months. Caregivers said that would create a shortage on the medical side, driving up prices and hurting patients.

Some thought a proposed 20 percent sales tax on adult-use cannabis was too high, and encouraged the marijuana committee to restore the 10 percent approved by voters, while others thought 20 percent was too low, and warned that cheap marijuana could end up in the hands of children or lead to an increase in the state’s already high drug addiction rates.

Legalization advocate Alysia Melnick called for a 12 percent tax, with 2 percent yearly bumps until it hits the lawmaker’s preferred 20 percent.

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Almost everybody agreed that towns needed to get a bigger share of the profits than the proposed 5 percent of taxes collected.

“Otherwise, it’s not worth doing,” said David Douglass, the chairman of the Topsham Board of Selectman.

Some people who testified told the committee they didn’t think recreational marijuana was worth embracing under any circumstances. Many towns voted against the citizen initiative and are adopting temporary moratoriums to ban marijuana businesses within their borders until a state framework is established, or are moving ahead with permanent bans, regardless of state rules.

PLEAS FOR TIGHTER CONTROLS

Hailing from places like Scarborough, Hampden and Cornish, speakers told lawmakers that they felt abandoned by a state that had promised them local control of the legalization process.

Valerie Webster, a 70-year-old grandmother in North Hampden, says her life was turned upside down when an out-of-state company bought the house across the street and rented it out to young medical marijuana caregivers. The couple’s marijuana grow is already hard to endure, and allowing them to move into the adult-use market and expand their grow would only make an already bad situation worse.

“Think hard and long over these rules and how they impact people like myself, my family, my home,” said Webster, fighting back tears. “I now worry if I will ever be able to sell it. I beg you to not let the medical marijuana growers expand into commercial operations. I came from a town that didn’t vote for this. … All I want to do is live my life peacefully in (my) home.”

Nancy Perkins lamented the arrival of the Laughing Grass Inn, a marijuana-themed bed-and-breakfast, in the heart of Cornish, right next door to a park, a church and a toy store. Cornish thought the state moratorium against marijuana retail stores and social clubs would have protected them from such a place, in such a location, but they had to hire lawyers to shut it down, Perkins said.

“The state had a moratorium, but Cornish had the Laughing Grass Inn,” said Perkins, who has held various positions in the town, including a seat on the Board of Selectmen. “We had a social club scenario in the middle of the town and little to no help from the state law enforcement. … These are the issues that small towns will have to deal with.”

Some towns, like Hallowell, want to embrace the emerging marijuana industry, but need more flexibility from the state law to do it. They want lawmakers to allow towns to adopt cultivation, manufacturing or retail rules that are stricter than the state laws. One Hallowell leader said they would allow extraction only if it were conducted in a separate building to minimize the potential for explosions during the process.

Lawmakers will reconvene Wednesday and Thursday to hammer out revisions to the omnibus draft for a special session vote next month.

Lawmakers had hoped to have laws in place that would allow the sale of recreational marijuana by February. But it’s more likely that retail purchases won’t happen until next summer because of the time needed to write departmental rules, establish a licensing system and have testing and inspections operations ready.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at: poverton@pressherald.com

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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