Bill to legalize marijuana fails, but support emerges for statewide vote

With two members absent, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 8-3 against LD 1229, An Act to Regulate and Tax Marijuana.
With two members absent, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 8-3 against LD 1229, An Act to Regulate and Tax Marijuana.
Posted May 14, 2013, at 4:07 p.m.
Last modified May 15, 2013, at 6:27 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bid to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Maine was imperiled by a strong negative vote Tuesday in the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, though the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, insisted that the issue is not dead.

With two members absent, the committee voted 8-3 against LD 1229, An Act to Regulate and Tax Marijuana. The three lawmakers in the minority, led by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said they would urge the full Legislature to place a general referendum question about legalizing recreational use of marijuana on this November’s statewide ballot.

Those who voted against the bill cited numerous reasons ranging from being uncomfortable with legalized marijuana to worries about state government’s ability to develop a framework to regulate it in a timely manner.

“This bill proposes sweeping changes in terms of public safety, public health and tax policy,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a retired police officer who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and who was instrumental in lobbying for the state’s medical marijuana law. “I would move with a lot more trepidation today than I did in 1999 [during the medical marijuana debate]. In good conscience I cannot support the sweeping changes in this bill. This requires a lot of work.”

Chief in some lawmakers’ mind was the prospect of creating a framework within state government to regulate the production and sale of marijuana. Those concerns were fueled by a May 7 letter from the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which detailed what implementing a Bureau of Marijuana, Regulation, Licensing and Enforcement would entail.

Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett said creating that office would require the hiring of a director, an administrative assistant, a full-time attorney and at least two enforcement officers. Though the bill calls for some proceeds from excise and sales taxes to support those functions, Millett wrote that some start-up funding would be required in his department and at Maine Revenue Services.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the Senate chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said that if recreational marijuana use is to be legalized, he hopes it happens through the Legislature as opposed to by citizen initiative. Gerzofsky was a co-sponsor of LD 1229, even though he voted against it Tuesday.

“We want to be able to drive the boat instead of being passengers,” he said. “We have to remember that the people can bring it to us on their own. Are we going to direct this bus down the road, or are we going to be passengers?”

David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said his group intends to collect enough signatures to put a marijuana legalization measure to statewide referendum in November 2016 in hopes of benefiting from strong voter turnout associated with the next presidential election.

Wilson wrote a wide-ranging amendment and presented it to the committee on Tuesday. The amendment would have required the Department of Administrative and Financial Services to collect bids for up to 10 contracts statewide for the cultivation of marijuana as well as a single distribution arm. Unlike Russell’s bill, Wilson’s amendment would not have legalized growing marijuana on a small scale or for personal use.

Wilson also would have routed proceeds from a 7 percent sales tax and $50-per-ounce excise tax differently than Russell proposed, with 50 percent of the revenues flowing to substance abuse prevention programs and law enforcement agencies.

Russell has estimated that taxing and regulating marijuana could generate up to $14 million a year in tax revenues, three-quarters of which she proposed putting in the General Fund, which supports the majority of state government. Wilson agreed with some other lawmakers that either his amendment or Russell’s original bill would demand a major implementation effort that would be neither quick nor cheap.

“I believe in my heart that if this did go to referendum, that it would pass,” said Wilson. “We’d be in the same position that Colorado finds itself in, scrambling to craft regulation. They’re faced with quite a predicament, really.”

Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana through a citizen initiative last year.

Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, a retired police officer, said he has long thought marijuana would become legal someday, but not on the scale Russell proposed, which would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces. Marks also questioned how anyone could grow six plants, which Russell proposes to be legalized, without producing pounds of pot as opposed to ounces.

“We’d be going from felony status today to total legalization tomorrow,” said Marks. “That’s a lot for me.”

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said he suspected most voters have their minds made up about whether they want to legalize marijuana and that it won’t matter what framework legalization comes with.

“This has become a yes-or-no proposition for most people,” he said.

Russell reacted with dismay to the committee’s vote, though she said an up-or-down vote on a simple referendum question without a complicated bill behind it might be easier for some lawmakers in the full Legislature to support. However, creating a referendum question requires a two-thirds vote.

“We still have a fight ahead,” said Russell, who vowed that despite Tuesday’s committee vote, she will ask for a roll-call vote in the Legislature. “This is a much simpler proposal. It comes down down to legislative control over the framework. We can set up the regulatory structure if they ask us to.”

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