Maine won’t make its February deadline for beginning the sale of recreational marijuana and won’t be ready to do so until next summer, at the earliest, according to the committee tasked with implementing legalization.

A special legislative commission finished its preliminary work on how Mainers can grow, sell and buy recreational marijuana Tuesday, tackling issues ranging from licensing fees to tax rates to consumer protections. Now analysts will turn months of committee straw votes into the draft bill that will go to a public hearing next month and a full legislative vote in October.

But the agencies that will oversee the launch and daily operations of Maine’s recreational market will not have time to write departmental rules, hire new inspectors and staff, and license growers, retailers and testing labs before a legislative moratorium on adult sales ends in February, said Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, a committee co-chairman.

“We want to get marijuana out of the black market and we want to do that as quickly as possible, but we need to do it right,” Katz said. “It is such a big subject and there was so much to consider. As it is, we’re remaining silent on some subjects, leaving others to consider them on other days, because we couldn’t possibly do it all.”

In January, the Legislature delayed implementation of all but the home grow sections of the Marijuana Legalization Act until February 2018 to give the state time to draft a regulatory framework for retail cultivation and sales that will be overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

Advocates are critical of certain parts of the proposed bill, such as home grow restrictions, a requirement that most licensees have large cash deposits on hand that remain untouched, and the absence of provisions to allow for marijuana social clubs, but it is the delay in launching the recreational market that frustrates them most.

“The law as written and adopted by voters would have gotten the legal marketplace up and running as soon as possible,” said Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine. “We could have a program ready to issue licenses now, but the committee thought it knew better than the voters. It has made one change after another, and each change pushes the timeline back … and keeps the black market going.”

Various strains of marijuana are displayed during the grand opening of a marijuana store in Seattle. Washington state’s first retail recreational marijuana store opened in July 2014. Associated Press/Elaine Thompson

McCarrier predicts that Maine will not issue its first adult-use licenses until summer 2018, more than a year and a half after voters approved it at referendum.

At past meetings, the marijuana committee agreed that Maine shouldn’t be the first state in the country to allow marijuana social clubs, limited the number of plants that could be grown for personal use on any one piece of property to 12 no matter how many people live there, and set the combined tax rate on recreational marijuana at 20 percent, with up to 5 percent of taxes collected to go to the host community.

In Maine, this tax scheme would drive the price of marijuana up from an average of about $200 an ounce to about $240, with a $20 excise tax levied on the cultivator, which would be built into the price, and a $20 sales tax charged to consumers at the time of sale. The host town would get $2 of that $40, with the rest going to the state.

On Tuesday, the committee tackled the last remaining topics of debate, some of which had left them divided at previous meetings, such as:

Employers can refuse to hire job applicants or fire employees who use recreational marijuana, but landlords cannot reject or evict a tenant for recreational marijuana use.

State regulatory agencies must hire law enforcement officers to enforce recreational marijuana laws, just like the state Department of Marine Resources uses patrol officers to enforce state conservation laws.

State regulatory agencies can conduct annual or random inspections of recreational marijuana license holders, but it is not required.

License holders can face revocation, suspension and fines of up to $100,000 for committing public safety violations, up to $50,000 for license violations and up to $10,000 for a license infraction, in addition to possible criminal penalties brought by law enforcement.

Someone who is caught violating the home grow rules established by the bill could face up to a $1,000 fine, in addition to criminal penalties.

But the committee left other topics alone, deciding it didn’t have the time, expertise or jurisdiction to do things like deciding how recreational marijuana use is going to impact the job fitness of someone who is currently receiving unemployment benefits, or improving the state’s medical marijuana program or considering how to bring it under the same regulatory umbrella as recreational marijuana.

Committee analysts plan to have a draft bill written by the first week of September. They will meet with the committee chairmen, Katz and Rep. Teresa Pierce of Falmouth, to reconcile their summary of the committee’s various straw polls. A cleaned-up version of the draft bill will go to a Sept. 26 public hearing. The committee will discuss public testimony over the next two days before holding a final vote.

Once the measure is vetted, Katz, a Republican, and Pierce, a Democrat, will ask the state Legislature to convene a special session in October to consider the bill. The committee will have to sell the merits of the proposal to fellow lawmakers, many of whom have been on summer break while the committee did the bulk of its work, Katz said. Many lawmakers remain opposed to legalization, even after the referendum.

“We have an education job ahead of us,” Katz said. “A lot of people are not happy the law passed. To those people, I would say there are only two groups that want to see a regulated market set up – people who like marijuana and people who don’t like marijuana. Because really, we all have an interest in making the product safe, keeping it out of the hands of children, taxing it appropriately and keeping sales out of the black market.”

If approved, the agriculture and administrative and financial services departments will hire consultants to help write the rules needed to launch and run the new tightly regulated market, and guide them through the licensing process. At this point, it is up to the state’s executive branch to move as quickly as possible to launch the market, but the committee can’t force its hand with a deadline, Katz and Pierce said.

Discussions with the administration of Gov. Paul LePage have been minimal, Katz said. LePage campaigned against legalization last fall, and has said he would like to see it repealed. Katz and Pierce would like LePage to follow in the footsteps of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He didn’t want legalization, but once voters adopted it, he worked to implement it as smoothly as possible.

They urged LePage to appoint a marijuana coordinator to his cabinet, like Hickenlooper did in Colorado, but they haven’t gotten a response to their suggestions. As lawmakers, they can’t force the regulatory agencies to begin sales until rules are in place, and there is no mechanism for speeding up the process in a responsible manner, they said.

A LePage spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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