Lawmakers debate how high to go with tax on marijuana

State lawmakers are debating how much they can tax recreational marijuana without driving consumers back to the black market. On Wednesday, the lawmakers charged with crafting Maine’s marijuana regulatory system struggled to find that sweet spot of taxing enough to pay for the cost of enforcing the law and some drug prevention, and hopefully making the state at least some money, but not taxing it so much that consumers will still buy their marijuana from a street dealer.

In the legalization ballot measure approved last fall, voters supported a 10 percent tax on recreational marijuana, but most lawmakers seem to dismiss that as too low. Instead, members of the marijuana legalization committee appeared to prefer a combination of sales and excise taxes that would be at least twice as high, or 20 percent, with some wanting to go even higher.

The committee hopes to have a bill by the end of the month that will create the overall regulatory structure, including setting the tax rates, licensing criteria, cultivation limits and whether or not to allow social clubs, a component of Maine’s legalization ballot measure that would create a setting outside the home for adults to consume cannabis.

Read the story.

Commission votes to let sales of ‘nips’ continue

The State Liquor and Lottery Commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday to reject a proposal by the LePage administration to discontinue the sale of 50-milliliter liquor bottles commonly known as nips. The commissioners, all appointed by Gov. LePage, were considering the request to take the small bottles of hard alcohol off the shelves after the administration argued that the increasing number of nips found in roadside litter indicates that more people are drinking and driving.

LePage was trying to follow through on his threat to delist the 50-milliliter bottles after the Legislature overrode his veto of a bill that aims to combat roadside litter by adding a 5-cent deposit on nips. On the line were an estimated 31 jobs at the Lewiston-based bottler Boston Brands, the division of the Sazerac Co. that produces nips in Maine.

The commission voted against the recommendation by the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations after hearing testimony from about a dozen witnesses Tuesday. Read the story.


Venture capital investments down from previous year

Venture capital investment in Maine appears to have declined considerably since 2015. According to a report issued Wednesday by PricewaterhouseCoopers and CB Insights, there was only one venture capital deal completed in Maine during the first six months of the year, involving seed funding for Portland-based NBT Solutions. The amount invested is unknown, the report said.

In 2016, there were three deals completed with a total of about $6.4 million invested. The new report did not provide information about the nature of each deal, but said there was one for $3.1 million, one for $3 million and another for $250,000. That was a significant drop-off from 2015, when five venture capital deals were completed totaling $72.8 million, the report said. Read the story.

Suspicious text leads to temporary bank closures

Several KeyBank branches in the Portland area were closed Tuesday after bank officials received word of a possible robbery attempt. The incident began at 8 a.m. Tuesday, when an employee at a Windham business received a strange text from an unknown number, which police interpreted as misdirected instructions for a possible bank heist. The bank decided to close the branches temporarily based on information it received from police.

No incidents were reported, and the branches reopened at their normal time Wednesday. Police were searching for a suspect who sent the text. Read the story.


Downeaster exceeds ridership, revenue projections

The Amtrak Downeaster finished its fiscal year with the highest number of passengers since 2014, beating its ridership goals by almost 9 percent. The passenger train between Boston and Brunswick carried 511,422 passengers in the year that ended June 30, closing in on the record of 518,572 riders set in 2014.

Revenue also beat projections, with $8.6 million in ticket sales, a 7 percent bump from last year. In 2014, when the Downeaster set its passenger record, gas prices averaged about $3.60 per gallon, compared with $2.23 per gallon now, according to the rail authority.

Improved reliability, schedule changes and added trips to Freeport and Brunswick helped add riders in 2016-17, the authority said. The Downeaster service has some of the highest customer satisfaction scores among Amtrak routes in the country. Read the story.


State buys former branch of bank for Augusta offices

The state has purchased a former Bangor Savings branch building across the street from the State House to house Gov. LePage’s Office of Policy and Management.

The state purchased the building at 77 Capitol St. with $250,000 from LePage’s contingency account, according to the state’s Department of Administration and Financial Services. The contingency account, which is usually used for emergencies, is replenished each fiscal year with an appropriation of $350,000.

The purchase is part of a long-term strategic plan for the state’s needs within the capitol area, according to financial services spokesman David Heidrich. The building is next to a state-owned public parking garage that Heidrich said will likely need to be renovated or replaced within five to 10 years. Read the story.


Rate of doctors prescribing opioids declines for state

Maine doctors are prescribing far fewer opioids to patients compared with several years ago, a trend that experts say bodes well for future alleviation of the opioid crisis.

However, it’s unknown how long it will take for the decline to have an impact on addiction rates and deaths, and the prescribing rates vary widely, with two of Maine’s 16 counties actually seeing an increase. The prescribing trends are captured in two reports – a county-level analysis published last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a national report with state-level data prepared in the spring by a Connecticut health consulting company, QuintilesIMS.

The Quintiles report showed the number of opioid prescriptions in Maine fell 21.5 percent from 2013 to 2016. That’s the fourth-highest drop in the nation, which averaged a 14.6 percent reduction in the same period. Maine’s 0.7 per-capita opioid prescription rate now matches the national average. Read the story.


Zootility creates jewelry that carries multiple tools

Multi-tool maker Zootility Co. of Portland has designed a Swiss Army-type tool that can be worn as jewelry called Tülry. The company has launched a Kickstarter campaign – its sixth one – with a goal of $10,000 to help raise funds for production of the new jewelry-tool hybrid.

Tülry is made up of stackable, chevron-shaped tools that can be worn around the neck like a necklace. The stack can be customized with up to 16 tools, including various screwdrivers, a bottle opener, a box opener and hex keys. Zootility founder Nate Barr said his wife challenged him to create a wearable multi-tool. Read the story.