AUGUSTA — A legislative committee split Tuesday over which agencies should license and regulate marijuana businesses in Maine, highlighting the difficult path ahead as the state moves toward retail sales of legal weed.
After weeks of discussion, lawmakers failed to coalesce behind a single plan for which agency should take the lead in licensing the businesses that will grow, manufacture, test and sell marijuana and cannabis products for the recreational market. While part of the committee wanted the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to handle all licensing, other members argued that the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is better equipped to at least handle licensing for cultivation, testing and packaging of marijuana.
It’s a debate over process with potential implications for the timing of retail marijuana sales in Maine, expected to begin sometime next year.
Gov. Paul LePage has already used his executive authority to place the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations in charge of regulatory oversight and enforcement. While the Legislature could overrule LePage’s executive action, it would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to overcome a potential veto of the bill now headed to the House and Senate floors.
The Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation voted 7-6 – with four members absent – to set up the licensing framework under the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
“This is an entirely new industry so there are bound to be growing pains as we develop a regulatory system,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the committee. “There aren’t necessarily any right answers to this and that is what you saw today.”
It became legal for Mainers age 21 and older to possess, grow and use marijuana for recreational purposes on Jan. 30. However, retail sales of marijuana and its products likely won’t occur until at least February 2018 as the state figures out how to regulate and police the industry.
The ballot initiative narrowly approved by Maine voters in November directed the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to begin the rulemaking process to license and regulate the retail marijuana market. There appears to be broad agreement in the Legislature that some of those responsibilities should go to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations or its parent agency, the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
The disagreement on Tuesday was whether the agriculture department should retain some licensing responsibilities.
Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said the department already works with farmers and deals with agricultural commodities.
“We are trying to remain loyal to the original intent” of the referendum, said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff who supported the legalization initiative. “And the supporters of the original referendum saw Agriculture as the natural home.”
Under the alternative supported by Dion and five other committee members, the agriculture department would handle licensing of the “seed to packaging” side of the marijuana business while the Department of Administrative and Financial Services would license sales, shops and other aspects of the recreational market.
One argument made by those wanting to keep all licensing within the Department of Administrative and Financial Services is that it could protect federal agriculture dollars that flow to Maine. While the Obama administration did not crack down on the handful of states that legalized marijuana, the Trump administration has yet to clearly outline its policy toward state legalization of a drug that remains illegal under federal law. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization.
But Paul McCarrier with Legalize Maine said he believes the state would have time to respond to indications that the Trump administration might reduce federal funding to state agriculture departments involved in marijuana licensing.
David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he is less concerned about which agency is the lead licensing agency than about establishing a regulatory system. Every day that the system is delayed, Boyer said, is another day that the lack of a legal, regulated marijuana marketplace just fuels sales on the black market.
“We’re glad the process is moving forward,” Boyer said. “We wish it would go faster.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: