AUGUSTA — Supporters of Maine’s marijuana legalization initiative vowed Wednesday to fight a proposal to delay retail sales of pot until at least February 2018.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and Democratic Rep. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth have introduced legislation that would give policy makers three additional months to develop and implement rules regulating the sale of marijuana for recreational use. The ballot initiative that passed by a slim majority of Maine voters in November allowed nine months for the rule-making process. The proposal would extend that window until Feb. 1, 2018.
Marijuana possession and use is slated to become legal for adults age 21 and over on Jan. 30. Thibodeau’s and Luchini’s proposal would not change that date.
Thibodeau also said Wednesday that a new, 17-member special legislative committee will begin meeting next week to review the dozens of marijuana-related bills.
“This gives us an opportunity to work through the summer on some of these tougher issues,” Thibodeau said of the special committee to handle marijuana legislation. The bill to delay implementation also would clarify that recreational marijuana will remain illegal for Mainers under age 21 – seeking to close an inadvertent loophole in the ballot initiative – and would prohibit the possession of edible marijuana for recreational purposes until February 2018. The bill would not change Maine’s medical marijuana laws, which allow possession by patients under age 21 and the use of edibles.
But David Boyer, who led the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana use said it was unnecessary for lawmakers to seek a delay before work had even started on the rules. Boyer pointed out that retail sales began in Colorado within roughly nine months and Maine has the benefit of learning from those and other experiences in the handful of states that have legalized marijuana.
“It’s being submitted as emergency legislation so that means they will need two-thirds of the House and Senate to pass this,” Boyer said. “We are cautiously optimistic we will be able to bring together a coalition of progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans to put the brakes on this.”
The ballot initiative passed by Maine voters will allow Mainers age 21 and over to possess as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal use as well as up to six adult plants. The initiative also directs the state to set up a system for regulating retail sales of marijuana as well as social clubs where pot can be used. But policymakers will have to address a long list of concerns before retail sales begin.
Marijuana could be one of the defining issues of the 128th Legislature as Maine follows four other states plus the District of Columbia that have legalized the drug. Three other states, including Massachusetts, also voted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in November.
Maine lawmakers have introduced more than 50 bills dealing in some fashion with marijuana, although some are likely duplicates. The text of most bills is not yet available but the bill titles run the gamut from earmarking a portion of the marijuana sales tax revenues for county jails to a repeal of the 2016 ballot initiative legalizing pot.
Thibodeau and Luchini’s bill, L.D. 88, is tentatively scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday at 1 p.m. in front of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which oversees election and voting policies. Thibodeau and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, have been in private discussions since last week to negotiate a political agreement on a path forward on legalization. A vocal opponent of legalization, Thibodeau also had wanted to delay all aspects of legalization to give regulators and law enforcement additional time to prepare. Gideon was open to a moratorium on retail sales, but she and many members of her Democratic caucus argued that Mainers should be allowed to use and grow marijuana in the interim.
“The way that we approach this is the law goes into effect on January 30th,” Gideon said recently. “Possession and cultivation of marijuana become legal and we have no intention of interfering with that.”
Thibodeau said that was a compromise on his part.
“I would have preferred to have a more extensive moratorium, but this is a great step forward,” Thibodeau said. “I am still deeply concerned about making sure law enforcement has the tools they need to keep our highways safe, so I would encourage the joint select committee make that one of their No. 1 priorities.”
Not everyone agrees with the approach taken by Thibodeau and Luchini in the bill.
Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, has introduced several bills to tackle the major issues individually, including a measure to close the potential loophole on underage access to marijuana and to ensure retailers cannot sell edibles in shapes and colors appealing to children.
But combining those non-controversial issues – which have the support of the legalization campaign – with the proposed moratorium is needlessly muddying the waters, Dion said.
“We may have overwhelming consensus on the under-21 piece,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff. “I’d be shocked if anyone would raise a plausible objection to the premise of that. But we could have a real difference of opinion on the moratorium.”
Boyer said while legalization advocates are not going to “die on the hill” over a three-month delay for retail sales, he and others expressed concerns about opponents dragging out the legalization process.
Paul McCarrier, who was heavily involved in last year’s legalization campaign, said they also oppose a moratorium.
“There is already nine months” in the bill, McCarrier said. “This just gives them more reasons to kick the can down the road.”
But Scott Gagnon, who headed the No on 1 campaign opposing legalization, praised the bill seeking a delay.
“We are thankful they have heard and incorporated the concerns of the half of Maine that said ‘No’ to Question 1 because of their deep concerns about the risks posed to youth and communities,” Gagnon said in a statement. “It was especially crucial to close the youth possession loophole and to continue to prohibit edibles. Our coalition strongly supports this legislation and will be actively engaged in advocacy to ensure its speedy passage. This is the perfect compromise to respect democracy while also ensuring we respect the health, safety, and welfare of all Mainers.”