May 21, 2018
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Mainers deserve to vote on responsible policy to legalize, tax marijuana

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Diane Russell, Special to the BDN

Regardless of where one stands on the issue of regulating and taxing marijuana for adult use (by those 21 and older), it is clear the movement to end prohibition is escalating by leaps and bounds.

While a full 58 percent of Americans believe it’s time to regulate instead of prohibit the product, 67 percent of Portland voters already moved forward by referendum last November. Adults older than 21 can now legally possess small amounts of marijuana in the city, though they still have no legal means to purchase it as a nonpatient.

It’s time lawmakers work together to craft a responsible policy of regulation and taxation and then allow Mainers to decide at the ballot box whether or not to legalize.

In short, it’s time to let the people decide.

Many of the questions that arose from the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee last year in the consideration of LD 1229, a bill that proposed a referendum on legalization, centered around how the federal government would intervene. Would federal officials sweep all the tax revenue we collected? How would banking work? Would the Department of Justice, or DOJ, use federal law to force us to end a legal state regime? Would people even buy a product they could grow in their backyard? Would high taxes further incentivize a black market?

Those questions have since been answered.

Last August, the DOJ released eight new enforcement guidelines, tacitly allowing states to move forward with a tax and regulate system so long as the states designed regulatory structures to effectively stem diversion to kids and drug cartels.

Moreover, just this month, the DOJ and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a bureau of the Department of Treasury, released new guidelines designed to allow banks to accept accounts for marijuana businesses operating legally under state law in an effort to move the industries from the financial shadows. Until now, business owners had to exclusively use cash, even to pay their taxes. It’s clear now, the U.S. Treasury will not be sweeping tax revenue Maine would collect should it move forward with regulation.

In the first week Colorado’s first 37 dispensaries were open, they collectively brought in more than $5 million in sales. With a voter-approved 15 percent excise and 10 percent sales tax, the state brought in more than $1 million in just one week. Last Friday, Colorado updated its revenue projections, estimating it would bring in about $35 million from taxes and licensing fees in the current fiscal year (ending in June) and $118 million in the next — just for the recreational market.

According to the Denver Post, “Extrapolating from those figures, the proposal estimates sales in all marijuana stores to approach $1 billion for that fiscal year. Recreational pot shop sales are estimated to account for more than $600 million of that — a more than 50 percent increase over a previous projection.”

With Maine’s 1.3 million people, that would translate to $29.5 million in tax and licensing revenue per year, or $59 million per budget cycle.

Opponents of the Colorado tax structure claimed it would continue to divert money to the black market because the cost would be too high. Similar claims have been made about proposed tax rates in Maine, but the evidence in Colorado clearly demonstrates that is not the case. Further, Coloradans are allowed to grow their own plants at home, which also does not seem to have made a dent in sales or tax revenues.

Beyond the economic argument, the ACLU of Maine found that Mainers were twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession if they were black than if they were caucasian. In York County, the difference was fivefold. While those arrests may not translate into prosecutions, the charges remain on a person’s record.

Further, more than 80 percent of high school seniors have been reporting to the federal government for nearly 40 years that they have easy access to marijuana. Under prohibition, enforcement resources have drained funds for educational programs to stem youth access, not to mention substance abuse treatment. Under a regulated structure, we could free up resources to reduce youth access and treat addiction.

While there are countless compelling arguments for responsibly ending marijuana prohibition, it should ultimately be the people of Maine to decide this important issue.

With just one more vote from Legislative Council, lawmakers could craft a thoughtful, responsible policy to tax and regulate marijuana, place it on the ballot, and then let Maine people decide their own future.

Diane Russell represents Munjoy Hill and Downtown Portland in the Maine House of Representatives. Follow her on Twitter @MissWrite.


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