AUGUSTA — Efforts to rush through changes to Maine’s marijuana law before the drug becomes legal next week faltered Thursday amid political wrangling between the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.
House and Senate lawmakers unanimously approved a bill Thursday delaying retail sales of marijuana and closing a potential loophole that could allow Mainers under age 21 to possess the drug. But LePage said he has no plans to sign or veto the bill because lawmakers failed to provide money to his administration to begin rulemaking or to address concerns about the best state agency to oversee marijuana licensing.
As a result, Maine’s new marijuana legalization law is scheduled to take effect Monday without clarifying the underage issue or addressing concerns about marijuana use in moving vehicles.
“I’m going to wait until they fix it,” LePage said of his decision not to take action on the bill before Monday. “As soon as they fix it, I will sign it.”
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon fired back Thursday, saying the obligation rests with LePage.
“I think every person in the state should be outraged,” said Gideon, D-Freeport. “The people in the legislative bodies did their jobs and took it very seriously. Our responsibility is greater than any grievances we have with each other, and my feeling is the governor is not fulfilling his responsibility to the people of the state right now.”
Starting Monday, adults over age 21 can legally possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana or six adult plants as a result of the ballot initiative approved by a slim majority of Maine voters in November. Retail sales of marijuana were not expected to begin until this fall, at the earliest, as the state begins the complex legalization implementation process.
But the bill approved by the Legislature on Thursday – via a 143-0 vote in the House and a 34-0 vote in the Senate – would delay retail sales until February 2018 by giving state agencies more time to craft rules.
The measure, L.D. 88, also would make clear that marijuana would be legal only for Mainers age 21 or older, addressing a concern raised months ago by Attorney General Janet Mills that the ballot initiative inadvertently legalized underage possession.
And the bill would have prohibited the consumption of marijuana while a vehicle – be it a car, boat, snowmobile or ATV – was in operation, in an effort to remedy another perceived flaw in the ballot initiative.
“The Maine Legislature today took decisive and appropriate action regarding legalized marijuana by voting unanimously for this bill in both the House and Senate,” Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said moments after the bill was sent to LePage’s desk by the Senate. “Passage of L.D. 88 means minors will not be able to use or possess marijuana legally and will prohibit driving while using the drug on Maine roads. It will also give lawmakers time to carefully craft responsible legislation around legalization to protect the public. I am encouraged by today’s vote, but much more work remains to be done on this issue.”
FOR LEGISLATURE, INAUSPICIOUS START
Within hours, however, that goodwill seemed to be crumbling at the State House as the two branches of government fought over process.
LePage was angered by House lawmakers’ rejection of a proposed amendment to hand retail licensing authority to the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations rather than the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The amendment also would have provided $1.6 million in funding to the bureau – money that LePage argued was critical to begin the rulemaking process and to bring in experts from other states that have legalized marijuana.
House Democratic leaders as well as Senate Republican leaders had argued that lawmakers’ top priority was to address the concerns about underage possession before Monday. Details about which state agency should oversee licensing of marijuana businesses and other aspects of retail sales could be worked out in the coming weeks, they argued, by a special legislative committee charged with reviewing marijuana-related bills.
LePage, however, told reporters Thursday evening that he wasn’t buying lawmakers’ promises.
“I can’t trust them,” LePage said. “And I don’t mind saying it, folks. The relationship is not strong. Now I will tell you this: They have an opportunity to get this done quickly and then we’ll start building a relationship. And I am willing to move forward.”
The moratorium bill – one of dozens of marijuana-related measures pending in the Legislature – is the first major issue of the 2017 legislative session, making Thursday’s events an inauspicious beginning for a Legislature that will have to work across party lines and with the LePage administration to craft a two-year budget.
The House Republican leader, Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, described the meeting as cordial, but said the governor is frustrated with what he viewed as an inadequate fix presented to him just days before legalization.
“It was a very good, frank discussion,” said Fredette, whose House Republican caucus has traditionally been more closely aligned with LePage than Senate Republicans. “What I thought was important is we had to sort of say, ‘Hey look, is this what we are going to do with the rest of the session? Or is everybody going to come around to working together on important pieces of legislation.'”
‘IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE THIS WAY’
The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee won widespread praise – both from legislative leaders and from interest groups on all sides of the marijuana issue – for its bipartisan work to craft the bill that won unanimous support in the House and Senate.
Gideon said she is concerned about what will happen Monday since the under-21 issue was not addressed. Legislative leaders could reconvene the Legislature if LePage vetoed the bill over the weekend, although Gideon would not pledge to do that. And the House is not scheduled to return until Tuesday, indicating that House Democrats do not plan to send LePage a modified version of the bill.
“It’s no way to govern and it doesn’t need to be this way,” Gideon said. “We are doing our work and we are going to continue to do our work. But it will take more than one body to get things done. And we need the governor to do the right thing.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: