AUGUSTA — The Legislature on Wednesday overturned a veto by Gov. Paul LePage that would have again stalled the legal sale of recreational marijuana, moving Maine a major step closer to launching a legal retail market for the drug.

The House voted 109-39 and the Senate 28-6 to override LePage’s veto of cannabis legalization legislation, setting the state on a path to the legal sale and production of recreational marijuana some 18 months after voters approved legalization at the ballot box in November 2016. However, it will likely be the spring of 2019 before the first retail shops can open for business.

Now that the bill has passed, the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services must hire a consultant to help the state write more regulatory rules, including inspection and licensing of wholesale commercial growing facilities, licensing of retail sellers and collection of sales taxes. The rules will have to be approved by the next Legislature, which convenes in January.

The Republican governor, a steadfast opponent of legalization, had vetoed the Legislature’s first attempt at drafting a law to launch the retail market for cannabis in November. It’s not clear how quickly the state will move to hire workers to administer and enforce the new law, and seek bids to design a seed-to-sale tracking system that will be used to regulate the marijuana market.

Wednesday’s vote provoked mixed reactions, even among those who campaigned successfully to gather voter signatures and get the legalization question on the 2016 ballot.

David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the bill includes provisions that the organization supports and others that it dislikes.

“Ultimately, we’re glad that the Legislature is moving towards a regulated marketplace,” he said. “We are approaching two years since Maine voters passed this and adults in Maine deserve a place to purchase marijuana legally.”

Dawson Julia, of Unity, who is a board member of Compassionate Caregivers of Maine, left, encourages Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta, to sustain the governor’s veto on L.D. 1719, the adult-use marijuana bill, before the morning House session on Wednesday at the Maine State House in Augusta. The House and Senate both voted to override the veto. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

OPPONENTS TO CONTINUE VIGILANCE

Scott Gagnon, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposed the referendum, was pleased that the bill had been amended to ban social clubs and reduce the number of plants that can be grown for personal use from six to three.

“This is an improvement” over previous proposals, he said. “It’s going in the right direction.”

He said Smart Approaches to Marijuana now will focus on things such as helping communities that don’t want shops selling marijuana in their towns, making sure that shops don’t get concentrated in particular neighborhoods, trying to offset “normalization” of pot use and counteracting problems that arise.

The final Senate vote came after a short debate in which a staunch opponent of legalization, Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, made an impassioned plea to his colleagues to support the governor’s veto. Cyrway, a former Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, said legalizing the possession and use of recreational marijuana would put more children at risk for drug problems in the future.

Cyrway also invoked recently slain Somerset County Sheriff’s Cpl. Eugene Cole, saying the man charged with killing Cole, John D. Williams, had a drug problem.

“This guy had a drug problem and we are setting ourselves up to have more of them. We’ve got to stop it,” Cyrway said.

Others who voted to sustain the veto said lawmakers had made too many changes in the measure that voters approved at the ballot box, such as lowering the number of flowering plants that can be grown for personal use to three.

“We are not making a choice between legalizing or not legalizing marijuana,” said Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden. “The citizens referendum already spoke to the rules we would like to put in place.”

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R Albion, speaks against overriding Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the marijuana bill during debate in the Senate on Wednesday.

APPROVED BILL MORE CONSERVATIVE

However, critics were outnumbered by those who supported the bill, which was crafted over the course of nearly a year by a special legislative committee that sought to refine elements of the ballot-box measure.

The adult-use bill is more conservative than the bill approved by referendum voters in November 2016. It doesn’t allow for social clubs, which means adults who buy their cannabis here will have to consume it on private property, with the permission of the property owner. And lawmakers cut the number of plants that can be grown for personal use on their own property – or someone else’s with permission – from six to three in an effort to reduce black market sales.

The bill doesn’t cap the number of business licenses, or the amount of recreational cannabis that can be grown in Maine, which some entrepreneurs complain will drive down prices so far that small growers won’t be able to survive, leaving only those with out-of-state money behind them standing in the end. To allay those concerns, lawmakers voted to give the first three years of business licenses to those who have lived and paid taxes in Maine for at least four years.

LePage vetoed the bill last week, saying he doesn’t want Maine to operate two different marijuana programs – medical and adult-use – with two different tax rates and two different sets of rules. He also raised concerns about the impact of marijuana impairment on road safety, and said he cannot “in good conscience” support a law that violates federal law because marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 drug.

LePage also said that other states that have legalized recreational marijuana “have seen staggering increases in motor vehicle fatalities resulting from marijuana impairment.” He did not offer data to support that assertion.

“After one of the worst years in recent memory for crashes, fatalities and pedestrian fatalities, we should take every step to ensure safety on Maine roads instead of making them more hazardous,” LePage wrote. “No branch of government has a monopoly on a good idea; if Maine is going to legalize and regulate marijuana, it will require our joint efforts to get this important issue right.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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