AUGUSTA — After slugging it out for years, advocates on both sides of the cannabis issue have come together to craft a rescue plan for Maine’s adult-use legalization bill.

The group that wrote the successful marijuana referendum question, Legalize Maine, has joined with Maine’s top anti-legalization groups, the Christian Civic League and the state arm of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, to draft a proposal that would, among other things, give medical marijuana providers a first crack at adult-use cultivation and sales under a rolling licensing system, followed by Maine residents, in a market that would launch in July.

The proposal was introduced by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who voted against a legalization bill passed by the legislature last year that died by gubernatorial veto in November. He unveiled the unlikely coalition, and the wide-ranging amendment, at a legislative hearing on the latest version of the legalization bill on Tuesday, saying the compromises hammered out by these one-time rivals could secure the votes needed to pass the bill this session.

“Our goal has been to bridge the gap between diverse interests to find a safe, appropriate way to regulate and implement adult use cannabis in Maine,” Saviello testified. “(Stakeholders) have gone to great lengths to accept a diverse compromise that is not directly in line with their respective ideologies, but in the interest of democracy and progress they have made difficult concessions … Join us in that approach.”

The legislative committee tasked with rewriting the ballot-box marijuana law to launch a commercial adult-use market has until Feb. 1 to do so. That is when a legislative moratorium on implementation of the retail cultivation and sales aspects of the citizen-approved Marijuana Legalization Act is set to expire. Bill opponents tried to extend the moratorium last session, but advocates defeated the attempt in hopes of overriding Gov. Paul LePage’s anticipated veto.

But on Tuesday, the Senate chair of the legalization committee, Republican Roger Katz of Augusta, introduced a bill to extend the moratorium through May 1 to give that committee enough time to tweak last year’s bill to appease the concerns of at least some of those who voted against it. That version of the bill fell 17 votes shy of the number needed to override LePage’s veto.

The bill presented at the hearing Tuesday was the same one LePage shot down in November, but Katz told an audience of industry representatives, their lobbyists and medical marijuana patients that he knew the bill would undergo changes, especially in the area of tax structure, agency oversight and coordination with the state medical marijuana system.

Last year’s bill contained a 20 percent tax rate that gave host towns a cut of marijuana revenue; allowed towns to go dry by opting out of the market; and lifted a cap on retail cultivation in a tiered licensing set-up that favored Maine residents, but didn’t include licensing preference for medical marijuana players like the voter-approved law does. The committee bill also delayed social clubs for at least a year.

Saviello led off the testimony by outlining the coalition proposal, which included imposing a three-year prohibition on social clubs, setting a 17.5 percent tax rate, requiring those who grow plants for personal use on someone else’s land to get a land-use agreement, easing but not striking a requirement that municipalities “opt into” the adult-use market, and giving towns the right to license marijuana businesses themselves, and charge fees to offset regulatory costs, if the state doesn’t take licensing action.

It wasn’t the only full-scale rescue proposal floated at the hearing. Another advocacy group, Maine Professionals for Regulating Marijuana, outlined fixes for almost every major reason that LePage gave for his veto, including his concerns about problems in the medical marijuana program. The proposal would stop issuing caregiver licenses until late 2019, prohibit medical marijuana retail shops and impose testing, labeling and packaging requirements on caregivers who grow outside of their homes.

Fear about what might happen to the medical marijuana program came up over and over again at the hearing, with caregivers and patients, including one teen-ager who uses medical marijuana to treat the pain and muscle spasms caused by three nervous system diseases, begging committee members not to lump the medical marijuana program in with the new recreational program. Katz said the committee has no plans to end the medical marijuana program.

Brett Messer and his wife, Stephanie Caron, are caregivers who grow marijuana at Brigid Farm in Saco’s industrial zone and hope to make the jump into adult-use, but a merger of the two programs doesn’t sit well with them, especially considering the congressional protections that forbid the Justice Department from using its resources to go after state-licensed medical marijuana operators. Merging the two programs could open medical marijuana up to federal prosecution, they said.

“They shouldn’t be lumped together,” Messer said. “Medical marijuana serves sick people. Adult-use marijuana is an intoxicant for adults to enjoy.”

Medical marijuana has been regulated in Maine since 2009, with the product supplied by eight state-licensed dispensaries and a network of more than 4,000 caregivers who grow and sell cannabis to patients that have a doctor-issued medical marijuana certification. The state Department of Health and Human Services runs that program, but oversight of the recreational market has fluctuated during rule-making between the state’s agriculture department and its alcohol bureau.

UNDER SCRUTINY

In his veto letter, LePage’s biggest worry was with how adult use would put Maine at odds with federal law. He said Maine needed to know if the Trump administration would continue Obama-era policies of allowing states to pursue legalization without threat of federal prosecutions, before launching a new commercial market based on significant public and private investment.

His concern seems especially prescient given U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind those Obama-era protections last week. Sessions is leaving it up to individual U.S. attorneys to decide how to enforce federal marijuana laws. That has put the legalization committee in a “frustrating” position, leaving members to wonder if every one of the 93 districts overseen by its own U.S. Attorney will have a different prosecutorial outlook on state-licensed marijuana cultivation and sales.

“If you think of this as a football game, we just want to know what the rules are,” Katz said. “Is football even legal anymore? If it isn’t, just tell us. If football is legal, we want to know what the rules of football are. Hopefully we will get some clarity on that soon.”

The U.S. Attorney for Maine, Halsey Frank, said Tuesday that he is bound to enforce federal law, but prosecuting drug possession cases “has not been a priority” for his office. In a news release, he said his office has prioritized the prosecution of cases involving the trafficking of opiates, cocaine, crack and similar drugs. He said he didn’t see personal possession as a priority, but remained silent on the matter of state-licensed commercial cultivation or distribution.

“We have also prosecuted large-scale marijuana distribution organizations and did so even while operating under the recently rescinded DOJ guidance,” he said.

In Massachusetts, where state officials are writing regulations to implement its recreational market, the new U.S. attorney said on Monday that he would not rule out the federal prosecution of participants in the state-level marijuana trade.

Needless to say, Sessions’ rescission of the Obama-era rules has done nothing to alleviate LePage’s concerns.

“Until there is more clarity at federal levels in terms of enforcement, people who own or invest in marijuana-related businesses may be putting assets at risk and people who use marijuana may run afoul of federal law,” LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said on Monday.

LePage discussed this concern with the leaders of the legislative committee that wrote the last bill in December. Rabinowitz called the meeting positive and productive. The next steps toward implementation fall to the Legislature, she said Monday.

Maine is one of the nine states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Maine voters approved the issue at the ballot box in November 2016, but the Legislature delayed all but the personal possession and cultivation aspects of the law until lawmakers could figure out a licensing structure. The moratorium will expire next month.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at:

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