AUGUSTA — A legislative committee unanimously endorsed a bill Thursday that would close a potential loophole in Maine’s marijuana legalization law but delay retail sales of pot until at least February 2018.

In the legislative session’s first major action on marijuana policy, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee endorsed a bill that would:

• Make clear that recreational marijuana will be legal only for Mainers 21 and older as of Jan. 30.

• Require agencies to complete rulemaking by the end of October but delay retail marijuana sales licenses until at least February 2018.

• Limit the amount of “marijuana concentrate” a person can possess to 5 grams.

• Stipulate that neither drivers nor passengers can use marijuana in an operating vehicle.

Maine is among eight states and the District of Columbia where voters have legalized marijuana for recreational use, despite federal prohibitions on the drug. By month’s end, Mainers 21 and over will be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of dried marijuana, consume marijuana “edibles” and possess as many as six adult plants. The transition to legal pot has not been smooth in other states, and Maine lawmakers are rushing to address several vagaries or potential flaws in the state’s voter-approved law before Jan. 30.

At the top of that list was correcting a drafting error in the ballot initiative passed by voters in November that, according to Attorney General Janet Mills and others, could have inadvertently made it legal for minors to possess marijuana. The bill endorsed by the committee Thursday clarifies that possession of small amounts of marijuana by minors will continue to be a civil violation, except for medical marijuana patients.

BILL WOULD ALLOW 3 EXTRA MONTHS

More controversially, some lawmakers want to delay retail sales of marijuana by several months to give state agencies time to craft rules to regulate the cannabis industry. The bill endorsed Thursday, L.D. 88, would give the state three extra months to begin issuing licenses to retail stores or marijuana social clubs.

While the practical impact is arguably negligible because retail sales were unlikely to begin before the Legislature reviewed the rules in January 2018, proponents of a three-month moratorium celebrated the committee vote.

“It is very encouraging to see bipartisan support for this measure regarding the marijuana moratorium,” Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said in a prepared statement. “Although Maine voters approved this measure, albeit by a very narrow margin, I believe it is clear to all that there are many unforeseen circumstances surrounding legalization that impact public safety, employment and a number of other areas. It is hard to imagine that anyone who voted in favor of legalization wanted children to get their hands on this drug.”

Work on the bill is not done yet.

For the bill to take effect immediately, it will need two-thirds support in both the House and Senate. The unanimous committee vote should help in that respect. However, some Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans who are strong proponents of legalization could oppose the delayed implementation.

Legalization advocates, while not overjoyed with every aspect of the bill, praised the committee for soliciting their feedback.

“It’s clear that rulemaking will start on January 30, which was a priority of the coalition,” said Paul McCarrier with Legalize Maine, one of the groups behind the Question 1 ballot initiative.

Gov. Paul LePage opposed legalization during the campaign, and during the committee process some lawmakers questioned whether the administration could drag out the rulemaking process.

But Alysia Melnick, political director of the Yes on 1 legalization campaign, said she hopes the administration will move forward with rulemaking and send proposals to the Legislature for review early next year.

“They have an obligation to do rulemaking within nine months: it’s the will of the voters and is in the law,” Melnick said. “The recourse, should they not (proceed with rulemaking), would have to be through the courts.”

L.D. 88 is only the first of many policy debates over legalization that will play out in Augusta over the coming months.

In another major step, the House and Senate voted to form a special legislative committee to review the more than 50 marijuana-related bills submitted by lawmakers. That committee is expected to do more of the heavy lifting on marijuana issues, now that the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee has recommended ways to address the immediate concerns headed toward Jan. 30.

“We have got to fix what we can, and then this (special) committee will have to do the rest,” said Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, a co-chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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