With an overflow crowd watching, the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee holds an emergency meeting Tuesday on a bill to delay implementation of the Marijuana Legalization Act.

With an overflow crowd watching, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee holds a hearing Tuesday on a bill to delay implementation of the Marijuana Legalization Act. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard hours of testimony on Tuesday about whether to delay retail sales of marijuana in order to give the state additional time to craft regulations.

Maine is expected to lift its prohibition on adult possession and cultivation of marijuana on Jan. 30, joining a half-dozen states that have legalized the drug for recreational use. The citizens initiative narrowly passed by Maine voters last November also gave state agencies nine months to develop and implement rules regulating the sale of marijuana at cannabis shops and social clubs.

A bill now pending before the Legislature would push back that deadline to February 2018 in response to concerns that nine months was too short to craft a complex set of regulations for licensing and enforcement of what is expected to quickly grow into a major industry in Maine. The bill, L.D. 88, also would clarify that recreational marijuana will remain illegal for Mainers under age 21 and would prohibit the sale of edible marijuana products for recreational purposes until February 2018.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, said the three-month delay would ensure the state can move forward in “a thoughtful manner … and do it without leaving a big price tag for the taxpayers to pick up.”

“The reason that it was submitted isn’t necessarily around the policy issue” of legalization, Luchini told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which he co-chairs. “In large part it is because the initiative bill, which was approved by referendum, falls very short on matters of public safety and protecting Maine’s kids. In fact, as written, there is no penalty for kids if they possess marijuana … and (it) is filled with drafting errors and problematic errors that could have huge, unintended consequences as we move forward.”

Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, sponsor of the bill to delay legal retail sales of marijuana, introduces the bill to the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday. He said the delay would allow the state to proceed in “a thoughtful manner."

Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, sponsor of the bill to delay legal retail sales of marijuana, introduces the bill to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Tuesday. He said the delay would allow the state to proceed in “a thoughtful manner.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The bill was the result of a compromise negotiated between Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Winterport Republican who opposed legalization, and Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport.

But dozens of legalization advocates urged lawmakers to quickly fix the widely recognized problems in the citizens initiative – particularly making clear marijuana possession by minors remains illegal – without delaying the will of the voters who approved legalization by the slimmest of margins.

“We are being asked to extend a moratorium without even trying,” said Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, one of the organizations behind last year’s campaign. “What would (Patriots coach) Bill Belichick do right now? Would he say we need a fifth quarter to win a championship game? I don’t think so. … I think we have the ability to do this in nine months.”

Maine is one of eight states plus the District of Columbia where voters have legalized marijuana for personal use, despite pot’s status as an illegal drug at the federal level. The first two states to legalize the drug – Colorado and Washington – have served as trailblazers for regulating retail sales of marijuana but also bellwethers for potential problems, including smuggling into neighboring states, edible cannabis products attractive to children, and impaired driving.

In addition to the three-month delay in rulemaking, the bill would state that edible cannabis products cannot be sold until February 2018 in order for regulators to enact rules aimed at keeping them away from children. Consumers could still make their own edible marijuana products, however. And Luchini agreed to changes in the bill to state that personal use of marijuana would be allowed in “non-public places” – a relaxation of the original language allowing use only inside a private home – but specifying that it cannot be used in a motor vehicle.

Representatives of organizations that opposed legalization, including some in the medical community, urged lawmakers to support the moratorium.

“From our standpoint, while we acknowledge the results of the election, anything that delays and gives more time to do this in a responsible way is a positive,” said Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association. Smith also countered statements that Maine has one of the best-run medical marijuana programs in the country, saying his organization regards the system as “a mess” because the qualifications for the drug are too lax.

People watch and listen to the hearing by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee in an overflow room at the State House.

People watch and listen to the hearing by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee in an overflow room at the State House. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Legalization advocates, however, said Maine should be able to implement the rules within nine months by following the lessons learned in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. But if nine months turns out to be an unfeasible, lawmakers can always vote later in the legislative session to extend the deadline.

Becky DeKeuster – a founder of the largest medical marijuana dispensary company in Maine, Wellness Connection, who now works as an independent consultant – said the well-intentioned bill usurps the will of voters and will actually support the current black market for marijuana. She also called the bill a “jobs, revenue and investment killer.”

“Here we have an industry that is ready to create hundreds of small- to medium-sized businesses and thousands of new jobs, an industry that will benefit ancillary businesses, generate revenue and an industry … with deep roots in Maine … that plays to our agricultural and our entrepreneurial strengths,” DeKeuster said.

The bill is on a fast-track because lawmakers want to pass all or parts of it before Jan. 30, when personal possession is slated to become legal. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is slated to hold a work session on L.D. 88 on Wednesday morning.

But because it is considered an “emergency measure” that would take immediate effect, the bill will require two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate to pass. And it remains unclear if supporters can muster enough support from pro-legalization Democrats as well as libertarian-leaning Republicans in both chambers to pass the bill.

 

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