AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are debating whether to delay licensing of marijuana “social clubs” in Maine, following the lead of other legalization states facing concerns about public health or unwanted scrutiny from federal officials.

But legalization advocates caution that it is better to have licensed, tightly regulated cannabis clubs than illegal venues operating in the shadows.

“These clubs are going to pop up. They already are, and delaying is not going to prevent any of that activity,” said Becky DeKeuster, a consultant on cannabis issues who previously ran medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine and California.

The legalization referendum narrowly endorsed by Maine voters in November includes references throughout the ballot initiative to “social clubs” where adults age 21 and over buy and consume recreational marijuana on premises. The fully licensed social clubs were envisioned as places where users could legally gather – similar to a bar or smoking lounge – to use marijuana in a carefully controlled and monitored atmosphere.

Yet Maine could be the first state to permit marijuana clubs – a prospect that clearly concerned some lawmakers Friday on the committee charged with prepping the state for retail sales.

“In almost every other aspect of (legalization), we have the benefit of seeing the experiences of other states. And we don’t here,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who cited concerns about public safety and impaired driving. “Maine wants to be No. 1 in lots of things, but being the first state in the country to have essentially bars for marijuana isn’t one of them, in my opinion.”

TRUMP SENDS MIXED SIGNALS

Maine is among eight states plus the District of Columbia where adults can legally grow, possess and use marijuana for personal, recreational use. More than two dozen more states – including Maine – also allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes. While recreational possession became legal in Maine on Jan. 30, the first retail marijuana stores are not likely to open until the spring or summer of 2018 as state policymakers and regulators craft rules for licensing retail sales.

The question now facing lawmakers is whether the state should begin licensing social clubs along with other retail outlets starting February 2018.

Earlier this year, both Colorado and Alaska backed off of plans to begin allowing marijuana consumption at social clubs or pot dispensaries amid concerns about the reaction from President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vociferous marijuana opponent. And while Trump has sent mixed signals, many legalization supporters fear that the president will take a harder line against marijuana than the Obama administration. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

“Given the uncertainty in Washington, this is not the time to be … trying to carve off new turf and expand markets and make dramatic statements about marijuana,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose state began allowing retail cannabis sales in January 2014, told The Denver Post in March.

The ballot initiative passed by Maine voters gives towns and cities local control to decide whether to allow marijuana-related businesses – whether retail shops or social clubs – within municipal limits. During Friday’s discussion on the Maine Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee, however, numerous lawmakers were obviously conflicted between respecting the will of voters and wading into a new realm in the legalization landscape.

Several lawmakers questioned how smoke-filled social clubs would jibe with Maine’s prohibition on smoking in bars and restaurants or how club employees would avoid getting high or suffering health effects from inhaling secondhand smoke.

“One right does not supersede somebody else’s rights,” said Rep. Michael Perkins, R-Oakland. “In general, we have to take care of Maine citizens, for safety and for all of this. I think we need to slow down and, right now, I’m not for social clubs.”

But DeKeuster pointed out that her former employer, Berkeley Patients Group in California, operated an on-site cannabis “lounge” as part of its medical marijuana dispensary for years. Patients could safely consume the medical marijuana in a comfortable and clean environment that was staffed by professionals. And DeKeuster said she was not aware of any traffic-related incidents with any of the dispensary’s clients.

Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, pointed out that Maine already has social clubs for alcohol – they’re called bars – and repeated legalization supporters’ contention that marijuana is safer than alcohol.

ENTREPRENEURS GET CREATIVE

Illegal social clubs have already become an issue in several of the states with recreational marijuana. Colorado is believed to have between 25 and 30 unlicensed social clubs, according to a committee analyst. And so many social clubs cropped up in Alaska that the state’s attorney general was prompted to issue a 14-page written opinion clarifying that they were, in fact, illegal.

In Maine, some cannabis entrepreneurs are already attempting to get around the prohibition on retail sales by offering marijuana as “gifts” – which is legal under current law – often in exchange for a delivery or packaging fee. And there is talk that some individuals may attempt to open private clubs in which individuals pay a membership fee to access a space where they can consume marijuana with other members.

David Boyer, one of the leaders of the Question 1 legalization initiative, said “the more the state punts on this, the more that is going to happen.” But if the state licensed those social clubs, they would be forced to comply with all of the regulations, including health code requirements for customers and employees.

“We see (social clubs) as part of Question 1,” Boyer said. “We see this as the will of the voters.”

Marijuana could become a major agricultural crop once full-scale cultivation begins for the retail market, and the state is expected to see a boost from marijuana-related tourism.

Trevor Bozeman, who recently moved back to his native Maine after working as a marijuana consultant in other states, said the state shouldn’t fear “blazing the path for social clubs.”

“The Constitution was drafted in a tavern. Just imagine what could be drafted in a social club,” Bozeman said to the laughs of committee members.

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

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