A legislative committee is divided in half last Tuesday on the matter over which agencies should license and regulate marijuana businesses in Maine, emphasizing the challenging path ahead as the state moves toward retail sales of legal marijuana.
After weeks of talks, lawmakers did not coalesce behind just one strategy for which agency should take the lead in licensing the businesses which may grow, manufacture, test and sell marijuana products for the recreational market. While part of the committee wanted the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to manage all licensing, other members contended that the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is better equipped to at least manage licensing for cultivation, testing and packaging of marijuana.
It’s a debate over process with possible consequences for the timing of retail marijuana sales in Maine, anticipated to start next year.
Gov. Paul LePage has already used his executive power to put the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations in charge of regulatory supervision and enforcement. LePage’s executive action could be overruled by the Legislature, it would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers to defeat a possible veto of the bill now headed to the House and Senate floors.
The Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation voted 7-6 – with four members absent – to prepare the licensing framework under the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
It became legal for Mainers age 21 and older to possess, grow and use pot for recreational purposes on Jan. 30. However, retail sales of marijuana and its product probably won’t happen until at least February 2018 as the state figures out the best way to control and police the industry.
The ballot initiative narrowly approved by Maine voters in November directed the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to start the rule-making procedure to license and regulate the retail marijuana market. There seems to be a comprehensive agreement in the Legislature that a few of those duties should go to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations or its parent agency, the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
The disagreement on Tuesday was whether some of the licensing duties should be retained by the agriculture department.
Under the option supported by Dion and five other committee members, the agriculture department would manage licensing of the “seed to packaging” side of the marijuana industry while the Department of Administrative and Financial Services would license sales, stores and other facets of the recreational market.
One argument made by those wanting to keep all licensing within the Department of Administrative and Financial Services is the fact that it may shield federal agriculture dollars that flow to Maine. While the Obama administration didn’t crack down on the handful of states that legalized marijuana, the Trump administration has yet to clearly outline its policy toward state legalization of a drug that stays illegal under federal law. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a staunch adversary of marijuana legalization.
But Paul McCarrier with Legalize Maine said he believes the state would have time to react to signs that federal funds might be reduced by the Trump administration to state agriculture departments involved in marijuana licensing.
David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he’s less worried about which particular agency is the lead licensing bureau than about creating a regulatory system. Every day that the system is delayed, Boyer said, is just another day that the shortage of a legal regulated marijuana marketplace just fuels sales on the black market.