One of the reasons Maine legalized marijuana was to bring a multimillion-dollar business out of the shadows.

Voters wanted to replace a black market that made unsafe products available to minors while profiting unknown actors with a regulated one that operated under scrutiny in the light of day.

So, with the opening of this market just weeks away, it’s disappointing to see the Legislature considering changes that would put the public back in the dark.

L.D. 2091, An Act to Amend the Marijuana Legalization Act, would dramatically weaken Maine’s “right to know” laws by exempting a broad range of information collected by the state in the licensing process from public view. If the legislation passes as written, what an applicant’s plans are to ensure security, prevent sales to minors and the kinds of ingredients that will go into its products would be protected “trade secrets” that are not any of the public’s business.

As written, applicants could also declare their entire financing arrangements to be a “trade secret,” thus further obscuring exactly the kind of information that legalization was supposed to bring to light. Who will be behind the recreational marijuana market, and what political influence will they wield? Without knowing who owns what, it would be impossible to say.

“It’s paradoxical, almost nonsensical, that Maine would take a brand-new industry about which there are legitimate public health and safety concerns and make their information more secret than a grocery store, a day care or a gift shop,” said J.W. Oliver, editor of the weekly Lincoln County News and president of the Maine Press Association, which represents more than 40 newspapers and digital news outlets across the state.

“If they want to be accepted, they need to be open about what they will be doing to protect the community, to be a part of it. It is just too much to ask us to trust them, or even to trust the state,” Oliver said.

What’s happening in Massachusetts, which is a few years ahead of Maine in the launch of its adult-use cannabis market, should be instructive. In an industry that is still shut out from traditional banking, someone with a lot of cash can buy themselves a dominant position in the marketplace.

Even though Massachusetts law is supposed to favor local ownership of pot shops and limit the number of licenses that one person can hold, with the goal of discouraging corporate control of the market, a few players looking to dominate the industry have found a way around the laws. According to an investigation by The Boston Globe, two rival business groups are using complex corporate structures, high-interest loans and management contracts to control numerous licenses, which are held by local individuals.

If these kinds of relationships are considered “trade secrets,” under L.D. 2091, Mainers wouldn’t have the right to know much more about who’s behind the legal marijuana market than they did about the illegal one.

The state’s Office of Marijuana Policy was on the right track when it declared “transparency” to be a guiding principle for its operations. That should continue to guide the state as it launches a new industry.


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