AUGUSTA — Two state legislative committees considering marijuana regulations have decided they need more time to fine-tune their proposals.

One committee voted Friday to extend a statewide ban on launching the adult-use marijuana market from Feb. 1 until April 18. The other committee voted Thursday night to delay the Feb. 1 implementation of controversial new medical marijuana rules until it had time to develop its own bill to overhaul the medical marijuana program. Both proposed bills require the approval of the full Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.

Lawmakers say the extended moratorium on the commercial aspects of the voter-approved recreational law is largely symbolic. The Legislature first enacted one to give itself time to tweak the 2016 referendum language, allowing personal possession to go into effect but giving itself until Feb. 1 to craft retail cultivation, manufacturing and sales rules. But LePage vetoed the implementation bill last fall and the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee won’t have a new one ready for a vote before its deadline lapses.

“We don’t have a bill out, we don’t have rules made, we don’t have a system up and running, so it seems a prudent thing to do,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who introduced the bill and is chairing the committee. “What happens if that Feb. 1 date comes and goes and we haven’t extended the moratorium? The answer is probably nothing, if we haven’t set up a system of licensing … but just to be extra cautious and careful.”

The voter-approved Marijuana Legalization Act requires businesses to get a state and local license before it can grow or sell adult-use marijuana products, so there’s no legal way for commercial sales to occur even if the moratorium lapses, Katz said. The proposed extension is about giving the committee time to tighten up the ballot box law, sending a strong message to the public, and protecting towns from frivolous lawsuits, he said.

“We’re covering our bases here, just putting on the belt and suspenders,” Katz said. “This is just a simple bill to buy us a little insurance, a little more time.”

A lapsed moratorium might invite an aggressive entrepreneur to walk into a town hall on Feb. 2 to seek a state permit to start growing or selling adult-use cannabis, Katz said. When the town refused him, informing him there is no regulatory structure in place to allow his activity, that person could sue the town, try to evade stricter local or state regulations that will eventually be handed down, or claim licensing preference as that town’s first applicant, he said.

At a small public hearing before the committee vote, a handful of industry representatives expressed reluctant support for the extension, saying they understood why the committee wanted to reassure the public, but worried that Maine was taking too long to implement the will of the people. One dispensary employee spoke out against the extension, saying that every extra day of committee discussion was another day of profits for black-market marijuana dealers.

The unanimously approved committee bill will now head to the Legislature for a vote, which is likely to occur before the first moratorium expires on Feb. 1. Initially, Katz’s bill had set a May 1 moratorium deadline, but Friday he said April 18 would be a better fit because that is the last day of this legislative session. The committee’s final bill establishing the rules of the new adult-use market will undoubtedly have a new licensing date, but that doesn’t need to be set now, Katz said.

On Thursday, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted to approve its own moratorium bill to delay the implementation of controversial new medical cannabis rules by the state Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees Maine’s medical marijuana program. Finalized last year, the rules were to go into effect on Feb. 1, but committee members are worried about their potential impacts, and want time to develop new legislation to address areas covered by the rules.

The rules focus on the growing network of licensed caregivers who dispense medical marijuana to almost 50,000 patients with a certified medical condition that a doctor has concluded would benefit from cannabis. Some of the new rules give the state more information about caregivers, such as surprise inspections of caregiver grows or retail shops, while others clamp down on the caregivers who process marijuana for others by banning the resale of donated marijuana.

Two Belfast caregivers filed a lawsuit against DHHS Tuesday to strike down the new rules, which they claim will force them to divulge patient medical information.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said committee members were concerned about these issues, but believe they would be better addressed through new legislation than departmental rulemaking. She noted that DHHS had finalized the new rules without legislative approval, calling them routine technical changes that do not require a legislative review. She said many on the committee believe the rules represent a change in state policy.

The health committee tabled its medical marijuana bills last year to give the adult-use implementation committee time to craft its rules, Sanderson said. The committee also plans to ask DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton to consider delaying implementation of the new rules until after the committee can come up with its own legislation to address problems in the program, Sanderson said. Last week, Hamilton sent a letter to the health committee saying the medical program lacks enough oversight, administrative authority and resources, and that bills pending before the commission only begin to “scratch the surface of needed reform.”

LePage also has been critical of the medical program, citing the unchecked growth of the caregiver network when he vetoed the adult-use bill last year. He wants both of the committees handling marijuana issues to consider ways to create consistencies between the two programs. Caregivers have worried that Hamilton and LePage want to abolish the medical program, or fold it into the recreational program.

Both committees want to keep medical and adult-use programs largely separate, but are willing to work together to find ways to consolidate some regulatory oversight of the two programs, especially in licensing or enforcement areas such as lab testing, packaging and labeling. Members of both committees said that consolidation in these areas might help lower regulatory costs and appease critics like Hamilton who say the programs need to be considered in concert.

Sanderson wanted to combine the two moratoriums into one bill, but the adult-use implementation committee declined. Committee members said they lacked the jurisdiction and expertise to weigh in on medical marijuana, and didn’t want to risk a gubernatorial veto on their recreational moratorium by panning administration-approved medical rules. However, several adult-use committee members said they were sympathetic to the medical bill and would support it at a floor vote.

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

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