AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage reversed course Friday and signed a bill to delay retail marijuana sales in Maine and close a loophole that could have allowed people under age 21 to legally possess the drug.

On Thursday night, LePage stated that he had no plans to sign the high-profile bill until lawmakers provided money to his administration to begin rulemaking and transferred oversight authority to another state agency. But LePage signed the bill roughly a day after making those comments while accusing Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, of “playing dirty politics.”

He also pledged to use his authority to move oversight of licensing and enforcement of marijuana sales from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations.

“Because I do not trust Speaker Gideon will approve my language in the bill she submitted in her own name, I will issue an executive order delegating oversight of marijuana from ACF to BABLO,” LePage said in a statement posted on the governor’s Facebook page. “However, no rules will be promulgated until the Legislature allocates money to fund the rulemaking process. I sign this bill today to protect Maine children from the dangers of marijuana.”

By signing the bill, LePage averted a situation in which police would have been unable to stop minors from using pot or drivers from smoking it behind the wheel.

Mainers voted by a narrow margin in November to allow adults over age 21 to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana as well as six adult plants. As a result, personal possession of marijuana will become legal on Monday as Maine joins eight other states that have lifted prohibitions on the drug.

During the campaign, Attorney General Janet Mills raised concerns that the language of the ballot initiative could inadvertently legalize marijuana for those under 21 because it repealed statutes used to prosecute underage possession.

The bill passed unanimously by the Legislature on Thursday, L.D. 88, makes clear that marijuana would be legal only for Mainers age 21 or older. The legislation also prohibits the consumption of marijuana while a vehicle is in operation and delays the start of retail sales until February 2018, giving agencies more time to craft and implement rules governing the industry.

Yet somehow a bill that had widespread bipartisan support in the Legislature – as well as from groups on both sides of the legalization issue – became the first major flashpoint of the 2017 legislative session between LePage and lawmakers.

After meeting behind closed doors with LePage Thursday afternoon, Gideon said Maine residents should be “outraged” by LePage’s actions and said “the governor is not fulfilling his responsibility to the people of the state right now.” Friday night, she issued a statement thanking her legislative colleagues without mentioning LePage or his political attacks on her.

“Members of the Maine legislature swiftly addressed major issues, protected our kids and our public safety,” Gideon said. “I’m proud of the work we did and I want to offer a special thanks to the members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. I know how challenging it will be and there is more work ahead, but we’re on the right path for a productive and dynamic session.”

This week’s sequence of events suggest lawmakers may be headed into another turbulent session with LePage.

The governor bristled at the fact that House Democrats on Thursday rejected an amendment to transfer oversight of marijuana sales to the liquor and lottery bureau while providing the agency with $1.6 million in initial funding. Despite the divided vote on the amendment, the bill passed 143-0 in the House and 34-0 in the Senate.

“I’m going to wait until they fix it,” LePage said Thursday night. “As soon as they fix it, I will sign it.”

Members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee discussed housing the marijuana program within BABLO, as the agency is known, during the committee’s bipartisan work on the bill. However, members ultimately decided to hand off those issues – and others – to a new committee charged with reviewing the dozens of marijuana-related bills pending in the Legislature.

Gideon and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau had argued their first priority was fixing the “emergency” issues before Monday. Gideon then introduced a separate bill to move oversight to BABLO and provide funding, meaning the issues will subject to a public hearing and more extensive discussion.

LePage seemed to castigate Gideon in his statement, saying she “will have to work hard to earn my trust.”

“Speaker Gideon is new in her leading role, and her inexperience is apparent,” LePage said. “She claims she wants to work with the executive branch, but it’s clear she does not. She personally whipped her caucus to defeat my common-sense amendments to the marijuana bill, then commandeered them as her own.”

While LePage singled out Gideon in his statements, the uncertainty over whether he would sign or veto the bill fanned tensions within his party during the opening weeks of the 2017 legislative session.

Earlier Friday, Thibodeau released a strongly worded statement urging LePage to take action before Monday.

“I met with the governor on Thursday, and he indicated to me that he hasn’t even read the bill,” said Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “Given the flaws in the law, as written, that are recognized by Democrats, Republicans and legalization opponents and supporters alike, and the fact that without enactment of L.D. 88 children will be legally allowed to use the drug beginning Monday, I would hope he would see the value in reading the legislation and signing it.”

LePage has had a strained relationship with the Legislature throughout much of his two terms in office. He often accuses lawmakers from both parties of coming to the State House for selfish reasons rather than to serve the public interest. Two years ago, he publicly criticized Thibodeau and Senate Republicans for opposing aspects of his two-year budget and then vetoed the budget as well as dozens of bills from both parties.

LePage famously clashed with the previous Democratic House Speaker, Mark Eves of North Berwick.

The governor threatened to withhold funding for a Good-Will Hinckley – a central Maine nonprofit that operates a charter school – if the organization proceeded with its plans to hire Eves as its president because of his past opposition to charter schools. Good-Will Hinckley subsequently rescinded its job offer to Eves, who responded by accusing LePage of blackmail and sued unsuccessfully in federal court.

This week’s events suggest Mainers shouldn’t expect a cozier relationship between LePage and the new House Speaker.

“It’s no way to govern and it doesn’t need to be this way,” Gideon said Thursday evening after LePage would not commit to vetoing or signing the bill before Monday. “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:

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