November 19, 2018
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Maine legal pot sales plan clears another big hurdle

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A man lights up a large joint in Portland's Monument Square, April 20, 2017.

New rules on the sale and regulation of recreational marijuana appear on track to enactment following a strong vote endorsing them Wednesday in the Senate.

The Senate voted 24-10, with Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick absent, in favor of a bill that would move Maine toward a regulation and oversight system for the sale of marijuana for recreational use. The Senate vote comes on the heels of a strong 112-34 House endorsement of the bill on Tuesday. Both tallies are enough to override an expected gubernatorial veto unless too many lawmakers switch their votes.

Lawmakers have been struggling to find agreement on a way to regulate retail marijuana sales since Maine voted in November 2016 to legalize recreational use.

[Cannabis sales forecast suggests it may surpass soda by 2030]

The legislation sets an effective 20 percent tax rate on marijuana products, gives Maine residents a priority for commercial licenses and sets health and safety standards. It also reduces the number of flowering plants a person can posses from six in the version of the bill that failed after a gubernatorial veto last year to three. Lawmakers have said that change has pulled more support from House Republicans who sustained the veto last year.

If Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s votes hold, they would be enough to withstand a veto from Gov. Paul LePage, who opposes the concept because it is at odds with federal law.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said failure of the bill would leave the 2016 citizen initiative in place, along with a tax of less than 20 percent and the allowance of internet sales, home deliveries and drive-through purchases. The new bill also includes a provision that municipalities must opt in for marijuana sales and stronger civil penalties for violations.

“If somehow this bill fails, the cheers you will hear are the people who are involved in the illicit gray market, who don’t want licenses … and don’t want to pay taxes,” Katz said.

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, voted against the bill, arguing that legal marijuana sales put Maine’s children “in harm’s way.”

“This is a Schedule 1 drug, which is the same category as heroin and cocaine,” said Cyrway, a retired police officer. “Is it OK to say that heroin can be in your household? … We’ve lowered our standards to make this a normal thing to do, to smoke pot.”

[Colorado teen drug use is down after marijuana legalization]

Even if this law passes, marijuana stores may not open in Maine until at least 2020. LePage vetoed a similar bill in 2017 and has opposed new marijuana legalization laws, questioning whether they conflict with federal prohibitions and saying his administration would have to issue rules governing the commercial system.

The governor leaves office in early 2019, so opening the wider marijuana market will likely fall to the person elected to succeed him in the November election.

It’s unclear how quickly a market would develop under the proposal. The Maine Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, suggested to lawmakers that the state share marijuana revenue with municipalities that allow it. It wasn’t included in the bill.

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