Lawmakers are debating whether to delay licensing of marijuana “social clubs” in Maine, following the lead of other legalization states confronting unwanted scrutiny from federal officials or concerns about public health.

But legalization advocates warn that it’s better to have licensed, closely regulated marijuana clubs than illegal places running in the shadows.

“These clubs will pop up. They already are, and delaying isn’t going to prevent any of that activity,” said Becky DeKeuster, a consultant on cannabis issues who formerly ran medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine and California.

The legalization referendum narrowly backed by Maine voters in November contains references throughout the ballot initiative to “social clubs” where adults age 21 and over purchase and consume on shop premises. The fully accredited social clubs were pictured as places where users could lawfully assemble – similar to a bar or smoking lounge – to use marijuana in a carefully regulated and monitored setting.

Yet Maine could be the first state to allow marijuana clubs – a prospect that certainly concerned some lawmakers on the committee in charged with preparing the state for retail sales.

TRUMP’S MIXED SIGNALS

Maine is among eight states plus the District of Columbia where adults can legally grow, possess and use marijuana for personal and recreational use. More than two dozen more states – including Maine – also permit marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes. While recreational possession became legal in Maine on Jan. 30, the first retail marijuana shops aren’t likely to open until the spring or summer of 2018 as state policymakers and regulators craft rules for licensing retail sales.

The question now is whether the state should start licensing social clubs along with other retail outlets beginning February 2018.

Earlier this year, both Colorado and Alaska backed off of plans to start permitting marijuana consumption at social clubs or pot dispensaries amid concerns about the reaction from President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been a very vocal marijuana adversary. And while Trump has sent mixed signals, many legalization supporters are afraid that the president will choose a tougher line against marijuana compared to the Obama administration.

The ballot initiative gives towns and cities local control to determine whether to permit marijuana-related businesses – whether or not social clubs or retail stores – within its jurisdiction. During the discussion on the Maine Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee, numerous lawmakers were clearly conflicted between honoring the will of voters and wading into a brand new world in the legalization landscape.

Several lawmakers questioned how smoke-filled social clubs would co-exist with Maine’s prohibition on smoking in bars and restaurants or how club workers would prevent becoming high or enduring health effects from inhaling secondhand smoke.

“One right does not supersede somebody else’s rights,” said Rep. Michael Perkins, R-Oakland. “In general, we need to take good care of Maine citizens, for safety and for all of this. I think we need to slow down and, right now, I’m not for social clubs.”

But DeKeuster pointed out that her former employer, Berkeley Patients Group in California, ran an on-site cannabis “lounge” as part of its medical marijuana dispensary for many years. The medical marijuana could be safely consumed by patients in a clean and comfortable surroundings which was staffed by professionals. And DeKeuster said she wasn’t aware of any traffic-related incidents with any of the dispensary’s customers.

ENTREPRENEURS GETTING CREATIVE

Social clubs have already become an issue in some of the states with recreational marijuana. Colorado is considered to have between 25 and 30 unlicensed social clubs, according to a committee analyst. Many social clubs cropped up in Alaska that the state’s attorney general was prompted to issue a 14-page written opinion clarifying that they were, actually, illegal.

In Maine, some cannabis entrepreneurs are already trying to get across the prohibition on retail sales by offering marijuana as “gifts” – which is legal under present law – frequently in exchange for a delivery or packaging fee. And there’s some talk that a number of people may make an effort to start private clubs in which individuals pay a membership fee to get a space at the place where they are able to consume marijuana with other members.

One of the leaders of the Question 1 legalization initiative, David Boyer, said “the more the state punts on this, the more that is going to happen.” However, in the event that those social clubs were licensed by the state, they would be compelled to comply with all of the regulations, including health code requirements for customers and workers.

Marijuana could eventually become a leading agricultural crop once full-scale farming starts for the retail market, and also the state is expected to see an increase from marijuana-related tourism.