Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said her effort to put a statewide marijuana legalization bill before lawmakers in January’s legislative session failed because of opposition from one-time allies.
Russell said Friday night that those who opposed her bill latched onto elements of a draft she circulated without giving her, or fellow legislators, time to consider alternatives on matters including a tax rate for pot and ways to clean up the records of past offenders.
On Thursday, the Legislative Council voted 5-5 on a proposal to take up Russell’s bill as an emergency measure. A tie vote loses, meaning Russell’s bill won’t be considered in the shortened second half of the two-year legislative session.
Russell said she showed a draft of the bill to other groups that helped back Portland’s marijuana legalization referendum, which passed earlier this month with 67 percent of the vote. But those groups, including the Portland Green Independent Committee, cited provisions in the draft bill in calling on the Legislative Council – made up of Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature – to reject a bid to take up Russell’s bill in 2014, she said.
Russell said she’s already made changes to the bill and is certain a legislative committee would have as well, but those groups encouraged the Legislative Council to put the bill on a shelf, rather than take it up under a provision that allows lawmakers to consider emergency bills in the second half of the session.
Thursday’s vote means a bill to legalize small amounts of marijuana throughout the state won’t be able to be reintroduced before 2015.
In the wake of Portland’s referendum, police noted that possession of marijuana, except for medical use, is a violation of state law and they would enforce that law when necessary.
Possession of small amounts of marijuana in Maine is a civil violation with fines of $350 to $1,000.
David Marshall, a Portland city councilor and leading member of the Greens, said Russell’s bill called for a 25 percent tax that would be too steep to diminish the black market in marijuana.
He also said the bill would create a permit system for growers that could easily be dominated by a few producers.
Marshall said any law legalizing marijuana statewide should also include a method for expunging the records of those arrested in the past for possessing small amounts of the drug as well as an alternative to arrest for those under 21 who are caught with pot.
“This has a lot to do with ending the war on marijuana,” said Marshall, who charged that Russell wasn’t willing to commit to compromising on some of the parts of the bill.
“I really respect Diane – we’ve worked on a number of things together, but we need to talk seriously about this and how to make it work,” he said Friday.
Marshall said he didn’t think a legislative committee in a short session would devote enough time to making changes to the bill that would allow it to attract enough support statewide to pass.
It’s important to make sure a statewide legalization bill isn’t rushed, leaving a system rife with problems and unanswered questions, he said.
“We have one shot to make a model that’s successful for Maine,” Marshall said.
Russell, however, said she put a blank bill with only a title before the Legislative Council and that she was open to negotiating the details.
Russell said she hoped that a bill introduced in the aftermath of the Portland vote would capitalize on the momentum created by a referendum that was approved by two out of three voters.
“The people of Portland were let down” by a failure to immediately move toward statewide legalization, she said.
“We’ve been building the momentum for three years and that conversation, for three years, has been a statewide conversation,” she said.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: