AUGUSTA — A legislative committee began hearing testimony on a marijuana legalization bill Friday that’s supported by civil liberties groups, but opposed by an odd coupling of law-enforcement and medical-marijuana interests.

L.D. 1229, the bill from Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is a sweeping measure that would allow those 21 and older to possess 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana and six plants.

It also would license cultivators, producers of products containing marijuana, retailers and laboratories, giving preference for licensing to officials at existing dispensaries. As the bill is written now, recreational marijuana would be subject to a $50-per-ounce excise tax and sales tax. Medical marijuana would be exempt.

In November, Colorado and Washington voters decided to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Russell said Maine should “get ahead” on the legalization issue, as popular support for loosening restrictions on marijuana is growing, even as the federal government considers marijuana a totally illegal drug. Maine is already relatively liberal on marijuana: It’s one of 18 states to allow medical use. It’s also one of 15 states to decriminalize possession of small amounts, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is the most prominent state group supporting the bill, while a national group, the Marijuana Policy Project, has been the most visible lobbying force behind it. Both of those groups led a State House rally before Friday’s public hearing by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

“A majority of Americans are ready to move beyond marijuana prohibition, and this bill presents our Legislature with a golden opportunity to take the initiative to develop a sensible new approach,” said David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, in a prepared statement. Law enforcement groups vehemently oppose legalization.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said in testimony that legalization would make Maine a “launching pad” for marijuana, attracting criminal organizations that would look to smuggle marijuana into other states.

Maine sheriffs held a news conference rally against legalization Tuesday in Augusta, calling marijuana a gateway drug that leads to abusing other substances.

“We learn marijuana is how they started,” Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said.

Some medical-marijuana groups have told MaineToday Media they, too, are wary of legalization.

In written, advance testimony against the Russell’s bill, Paul McCarrier, a lobbyist for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, said bill promoters have ignored the cost of enforcing “astronomical tax collection on a plant.”

“Promoters of the bill claim it will generate fantastic revenues, ignoring the costs of administering and enforcing a program intended to place an astronomical tax on a plant,” McCarrier wrote in testimony. “Taxes like these would work against public safety, by encouraging more smuggling of marijuana into Maine to compete with the legal, regulated market, and that smuggled marijuana would not be taxed, nor would the money stay in Maine.” Glenn Peterson, owner of Canuvo, a dispensary in Biddeford, has said opening up the legal marijuana market to recreational consumers would hurt businesses such as his, which are in their fledgling stages after starting to open in 2011.

“I would not want to do anything that disrupted the medical side of things,” he said last month. “It really puts a death knell to the program.”

Those in favor of legalization, including Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, say much of that is because of simple economic protectionism, as legalization would mean higher consumption and, therefore, lower prices.

Peterson said he sells marijuana for $360 per ounce. McCarrier said caregivers sell it for $175 to $250 per ounce.

A paper by a group of marijuana researchers published last month in the Oregon Law Review says the American marijuana market is a $30 billion industry annually, but modern farming techniques could supply that demand for “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

So, the paper says, most of those billions could be captured by businesses or states, but “only if competitive pressure does not drive prices down.”

“For me, it is a necessary but fascinating footnote in history that some of the most active opposition is oddly coming from those who are fellow travelers of the road, shall we say — those who enjoy and use marijuana, be it for medical reasons or recreational,” St. Pierre said.

 

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

 

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