In their first major concession to Gov. Paul LePage, lawmakers crafting rules for Maine’s legal adult-use cannabis industry agreed Tuesday to ban social clubs until 2023.

The Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee voted 5-1 to delay social club licensing for five years in hopes of pacifying those who last year voted against a bill that would have launched the state’s recreational market. Committee members said they don’t want Maine to lead the way on social clubs, and would prefer to learn from the experience of other states before implementing their own rules.

“Other states have wanted to do it, but they still haven’t,” said Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais. “We need to get (the bill) passed, then we need to find out what the problems with social clubs might be. (An extension) will give us time to know what we’re doing. I feel that it is imperative that we do the right thing, and we don’t know enough to do the right thing now. This way, we’d have the bill done, our rules made, and then if we want to go ahead with social clubs, we can.”

A final vote on the legislation is not expected before February.

The committee’s first bill would have begun the licensing of commercial cultivation, manufacturing and sales in 2018, but pushed the beginning of social club licensing off until June 2019. That bill passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by LePage, who worried that a state recreational market would violate federal law, lead to an increase in impaired driving, not generate enough revenue to pay for itself and send the wrong message to young people.

Although the governor didn’t mention social clubs, committee leaders believe social club licensing figured into LePage’s concerns about impaired driving. After all, those who consume marijuana in a social club eventually have to leave, critics say. They say some lawmakers who voted against last year’s bill – it fell 17 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto – were hesitant about Maine becoming the first state in the nation to legalize social clubs.

“I think we really need them – ultimately, people need a place to go – but if this is a part of moving this bill forward, I’m in agreement,” said Rep. Lydia Blume, D-York.

WATCHING OTHER STATES

With a delay, Maine lawmakers will be able to learn from the experience of Massachusetts, the first state to create a policy allowing for public marijuana use, and cities in Colorado, Nevada and California, where local municipalities can approve social clubs because state laws do not expressly forbid them or license them. In Massachusetts, where recreational sales are set to begin in July, the state cannabis commission in December approved a marijuana café policy.

Denver voters approved an ordinance allowing customers to use marijuana in permitted cafés and restaurants in 2016, with smoking allowed outside in designated areas and smokeless consumption allowed indoors. But demanding conditions, including a ban on the sale of alcohol in these permitted marijuana clubs, and zoning restrictions that prohibit them within 1,000 feet of schools, recovery centers or day care facilities, meant it took a full year before someone applied for the first public-use license.

That first application – filed by a businesswoman who wants to open a marijuana café right next door to her recreational dispensary – is still pending.

Maine social club supporters lamented the committee’s concession Tuesday. They argue that Maine voters approved social clubs at referendum in 2016 and lawmakers should respect that rather than try to repeatedly delay them. Many complained last year when the committee voted to single out social clubs for a different time line than other parts of the Marijuana Legalization Act, and then again when it voted to restrict social club marijuana use to smokeless consumption only.

Social clubs are to marijuana what bars are to alcohol, advocates argued. If one is permitted, taxed and regulated, the other should be, too.

They noted the committee decision was made by just six out of the 17 members, and hope that the full committee will reconsider the decision before a final vote on the legislation. Many committee members have other committee assignments that demand their attention on Tuesdays, forcing some to attend, leave and rejoin Tuesday workshop sessions, a committee clerk said.

“If the committee’s straw vote remains, Maine adults will have to wait at least five years before their decision to allow limited social consumption of marijuana is finally implemented,” said David Boyer, director of the Maine chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project. “This decision encourages tourists and otherwise law-abiding adults to break the law and consume marijuana in public. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, adults will be trusted enough to consume marijuana socially as soon as this summer.”

‘EASIER TO SELL IN MY CAUCUS’

Other legalization supporters say that delaying social club licensing is “one part of a many-part process to get to ‘yes,’ ” said Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, the marijuana advocacy group that wrote the Marijuana Legalization Act citizen initiative approved by voters at referendum. Rep. Don Marean, R-Hollis, said the 2023 delay “will make this much easier to sell in my caucus” – the House Republican faction that upheld LePage’s veto last fall.

“This moratorium will give us breathing room,” Marean said. “This sends a strong message that we, too, are concerned about social clubs and we want to give the industry plenty of time to get their feet on the ground.”

Social club opponents, including some of Maine’s leading anti-legalization advocates, cheered the committee decision.

“What this will do is keep Maine’s roads safer,” said Scott Gagnon, an addiction prevention specialist and director of the Maine chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “It is unwise to encourage people to drive to premises to consume marijuana until we have reliable, science-based technology or protocols to test impairment.”

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

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