As the state goes toward permitting retail sales of marijuana, lawmakers heard hours of testimony about the economic opportunities, enforcement challenges and regulatory concerns posed by recreational marijuana.
While marijuana use became legal for Mainers age 21 and over on Jan. 30, lawmakers are just starting the process of setting up a regulatory and enforcement framework before the licensing of commercial sales begins in February 2018. On Tuesday, more than 75 people – from medical marijuana growers to adversaries of legal cannabis and municipal officials – and legal cannabis from medical marijuana growers testified during a wide-ranging public comment session to help advise that process.
“It must be a level playing field for all who are involved,” said Scott Durst, a 21-year veteran of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency who now works as a security consultant to the cannabis industry. “Citizens of this state need to know they made the vote – that it’s legal but there has to be accountability and everybody.”
Others encouraged policymakers “respect the will of the voters” and allow sales of marijuana despite doubt over the Trump administration’s disposition toward the eight states that have legalized a drug that’s still prohibited under federal law.
“Question 1 has cleared surprising political roadblocks than most referendum questions in recent memory,” said a former state lawmaker advocating on behalf of Legalize Maine, Ryan Harmon, among the two organizations behind the ballot initiative. “No more delays, no more politics, no more changes. Mainers have spoken. The time is now.”
RECONSIDERING FEDERAL ENFORCEMENT
Nevertheless, occasions in Washington, D.C., were casting a long shadow over states that have legalized the drug.
Even though the Obama administration had taken a hands-off strategy as an increasing number of states moved to legalize recreational and medical use of the drug, the Trump administration might be preparing to change that policy.
Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer said he anticipates states to be subject to “greater enforcement” of federal laws against recreational marijuana use. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions – an outspoken legalization adversary while an Alabama senator – further muddied that image when he drew a connection between marijuana and drug violence while saying the Trump administration would pursue “responsible policies” for enforcement.
“I’m undoubtedly not a supporter of expanded use of marijuana,” Sessions told reporters at the Justice Department, according to Politico. “States, they can pass the laws they choose. I would simply say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican who is a co-chairman on the Legislature’s Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation, said the committee is pushing forward with its work.
“But we’ve one eye on Washington,” Katz said in an interview. “We don’t have any control over Washington and we’re assuming that we are going to move ahead with legalization like Colorado has done unless we hear otherwise.”
Maine voters voted by a slim margin last November to enable adults age 21 and over to legally possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and up to six adult plants, although use of marijuana is only legal in a private setting. The ballot initiative also sets up a procedure for retail sales of marijuana. But, the Legislature delayed the effective date of that portion of the legalization measure until at February 2018 as a way to provide state agencies time to draft rules and regulations regarding licensing, sales and enforcement.
The time needed to set up a retail marketplace leaves Maine in a gray area where it’s legal to possess and use, but people can’t purchase it without breaking the law.
The ballot initiative additionally permitted municipalities to prohibit or to limit retail marijuana stores or “social clubs” where patrons will be allowed to use marijuana in a private setting. Maine is the first state to open the possibility to such legal social clubs.
HOW MUCH TO TAX RETAIL MARIJUANA SALES
One problem that lawmakers will need to settle before next February is how much to tax retail marijuana sales. The ballot initiative proposes a tax rate of 10%. The tax rates in the very first four legalization states – Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado – range from 25% to 37%.
A medical marijuana caregiver who grows weed for his clients, Pete Tranchemontagne of Sanford, proposed a 23% tax on recreational marijuana but no tax on medical marijuana. Tranchemontagne said recreational marijuana presents an economic opportunity for the state and that municipalities should take advantage of the ensuing tax revenues.
The new law permits towns to regulate the locations of marijuana businesses, and to prohibit them outright should they wish.
“We want towns to gain from this,” he said. “They get nothing out of small or a 10% tax. We want incentives for towns not to go dry.”
Bangor city officials also pointed out that, under the present 10% tax structure, the state keeps all of the tax revenue while municipalities have to endure several of the expenses of enforcement. Patty Hamilton, director of public health for Maine’s third-biggest city, said public health regulations are needed to minimize youth access to marijuana, address drugged driving as a “high-risk use” of marijuana with other drugs or alcohol.
“The time to put those regulations in place to safeguard public health and minimize negative impacts is now,” Hamilton said. “Options exist at this point that won’t exist in the future … and if we wait to put those constraints in place and leave the industry to regulate itself, making money will dominate major decisions rather than protecting public health and safety”
In both Colorado and Washington, motorists with 5 nanograms of active THC, the primary psychoactive component in marijuana, per milliliter of blood may be charged with driving under the influence.
A study by AAA found that deadly crashes involving drivers who used marijuana more than doubled – soaring from 8% to 17% – in Washington state between 2013 and 2014. The study also called blood-content limitations for impaired driving from marijuana “arbitrary and unsupported by science.”
Several speakers at Tuesday’s hearing urged lawmakers not to tamper with the fast-growing medical marijuana industry in Maine, which legalized medicinal use of the drug in 1999. Their concerns are in response to opinions from some people – including Gov. Paul LePage – questioning whether the state needs two distinct regulated systems now that marijuana is legal.
Medical marijuana laws provide accessibility to patients who aren’t yet 21 and allow patients to possess larger amounts of weed than allowed for recreational use.
CLARIFYING EFFECT ON WORKPLACES
Representatives of business trade groups, meanwhile, urged lawmakers to flesh out the rules regarding workplace security and the rights of companies to establish drug policies for workers. Legalization has created uncertainty and confusion for companies that administer drug tests to workers because a positive test for marijuana use could reveal legal use weeks before and does not automatically mean an individual is under the influence.
The Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation is anticipated to review heaps of bills this session and into the summer before submitting recommendations to the entire Legislature, likely early next year.