AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has signed a proclamation verifying the results of a November ballot question on recreational use of marijuana, and Mainers will be able to legally possess and grow the drug Jan. 30.
However, there will be no place to legally purchase marijuana until lawmakers and state officials set up a regulatory program and establish rules for retail sales, a process that could take nine months or more.
LePage confirmed the proclamation Tuesday during a talk show on WVOM radio in Bangor. But he also called on the Legislature to place a moratorium on the sale of marijuana, which voters approved by a narrow margin, until lawmakers could work out all the details, including providing funding to set up a regulatory framework for legal sales.
Under the new law, adults 21 and older will be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana or grow up to six plants. LePage issued the proclamation Saturday, and the law goes into effect 30 days later, which is Jan. 30.
Commercial sale of the drug would be regulated by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Opponents of the ballot question had requested a recount of the measure, which was approved by a 4,000-vote margin, but the recount by the Secretary of State’s Office was halted in December when it appeared there would be no significant change in the results.
LePage said Tuesday he needs the Legislature to provide funding to the agriculture department in order for him to move forward with establishing an agency to regulate the sale of marijuana in Maine.
“There’s nothing I can do until the Legislature gives me money to set up the infrastructure,” he said.
LePage also said he believed a moratorium would be appropriate so lawmakers can determine if Maine’s medical marijuana laws would still be necessary once recreational marijuana is being sold over the counter.
“That concerns me,” LePage said, pointing to Colorado, which he said saw an increase in medical marijuana patients after that state also legalized recreational marijuana.
He said Colorado residents were applying for medical marijuana permits in order to avoid the state sales tax on recreational marijuana, which is being paid for largely by tourists.
“So now they are collecting just a fraction of the taxes that they thought they would,” LePage said. “We really need to sit down and look at this, and if we are going to tax, let’s tax it, and if we are not going to tax it, let’s not even bother doing it.”
TAXING MARIJUANA: REVENUE, IMPACT
Mark Salley, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said Tuesday that immediately after recreational use was legalized, Colorado did see an increase in the number of medical marijuana patients. He said the increase was believed to be driven by lower taxes on medical marijuana and the opportunity to possess more plants.
More recently, he said, the number of medical marijuana patients in Colorado has gone down.
Online records show there were 115,467 medical marijuana patients in Colorado in 2013 – the year before the state legalized recreational marijuana – and the number has declined to 110,979 as of November this year.
LePage also took a shot at recreational marijuana advocate Paul McCarrier, saying his estimates on the amount of tax revenue the state would collect from legalized marijuana were off the mark by a long shot. McCarrier earlier told WVOM that Maine could collect as much as $200 million a year in tax revenue from the sales of marijuana and related products by 2020.
“My response to that is – he’s smoking,” LePage said. “We’ve got 1.3 million people, so 1.3 million people are going to smoke and tax us up to $200 million – the guy is smoking, I’m telling you he is out in left field. We don’t make that off liquor and liquor has been around a heck of a lot longer.”
However, David Boyer, spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol and the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said LePage may have misunderstood McCarrier’s statement about $200 million in potential revenue for Maine. Boyer said that number represents potential total sales revenue, not tax revenue.
He said Colorado, which has five times as many people as Maine, recorded about $1 billion in sales in 2016, and the $200 million estimate represents one fifth of that figure.
NO LEGISLATIVE CONSENSUS ON A MORATORIUM
Legislative leaders have said they will need time to sort out a regulatory framework for recreational marijuana, but have not reached any consensus on a moratorium. In December, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, both expressed concerns about edible recreational marijuana products that might be mistaken by children. The legislative session begins Wednesday.
If Maine were to enact a moratorium on the recreational sale of marijuana, it would be the second state in New England to do so. In December, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law that delays the opening of retail marijuana outlets until mid-2018. Like Maine, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question in November to make recreational marijuana legal.
Boyer said Tuesday that supporters were open to reasonable changes in the law, such as banning edibles that might be tempting to children or giving regulatory authority to the state agency that oversees liquor sales.
HOW MUCH TIME TO DEVISE REGULATIONS?
However, he said eliminating the medical marijuana program could cause problems for some patients, who often have different dosage needs, as well as for parents who provide their children with marijuana to treat certain medical conditions.
Boyer also noted that the new law already gives the Legislature up to nine months to develop the regulatory framework for recreational use, and he questioned the need to adopt a moratorium.
“How do we know we need more time before we start?” he said. “That’s kind of defeatist. How about we get to work, and seven or eight months in, if we need more time, we cross that bridge when we come to it?”
Boyer said the Maine ballot question was modeled on Colorado’s experience, and that state was able to implement legalized sales in nine months.
Opponents of legalized recreational marijuana also reacted to LePage’s proclamation Tuesday.
Scott Gagnon, a spokesman for Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, said his group supports LePage’s call for a moratorium.
“The reality is this is a huge cultural change, but also a big change that requires new systems at the state and local level,” Gagnon said in a prepared statement. “Nine months simply will not be enough time to get everything we need in place to mitigate the risks and harms this will pose to our youth and communities.”