AUGUSTA, Maine — For Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, it’s not a matter of if Maine will legalize marijuana for recreational use, but how it will do so.
Also now at stake is whether Maine voters will get to weigh in this year or next.
Russell and Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, both have bills before the Legislature that legalize the use and possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults 21 years and older. Both say they want their bills to be ratified by voters, but Dion said Monday he hopes to have the issue settled this November, while Russell is aiming for November 2016.
Also hoping to put a marijuana question before voters are two groups that have filed petitions and are working to gather more than 61,000 voter signatures needed to put a measure on the ballot.
In recent days, Russell, Dion and David Boyer, political director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Maine and the manager for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, have met to discuss a collaborative effort and a unified approach to get a measure before voters.
Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff who also served 21 years as a Portland police officer, said Monday that his primary goal is to change the state’s overall drug policies.
“We’ve got to get out of this war mentality,” Dion said, referencing the so-called “War on Drugs.”
“This is about having a rational drug control policy; let’s put our priorities where they should be on opiates, methamphetamine and the high-risk chemistry that’s out there and let’s regulate those that are more benign and less of a threat, if any, to the public safety,” Dion said.
Dion’s measure, if passed by the Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, would likely forestall any statewide vote on the issue in 2016.
If lawmakers did put a ballot measure out to voters, it would likely include the details of how Maine would legalize marijuana — that measure would include details such as how many retail facilities would be allowed in the state and also how many facilities would be set up to grow marijuana for the retail market.
The measure would also likely include provisions that would give municipalities the final say on whether they want legal marijuana in their towns or not.
But when voters will have their say on the matter is at least one point Dion and Boyer disagree on.
Boyer said Monday he’s heartened by Dion’s sincerity and also the clout he brings to the conversation as a former law enforcement officer, but his group still feels strongly the ballot question should be during the presidential election year in 2016.
“We can’t wait on the Legislature to pass this, so we want to be prepared for the campaign next year, so we are going to continue with our process and start collecting signatures next month,” Boyer said. “If the Legislature does do something, that would be great and it would be the first time legalization ever passed through a legislature.”
With four proposals out there, including one from the group Legalize Maine, which has already started its signature-gathering campaign, the biggest differences between the bills hinge largely on which entities would gain the best advantage in a new retail marketplace for recreational marijuana. In the case of Dion’s legislation, dispensaries that now sell medical marijuana would stand to gain the most market share.
The proposals offered by Legalize Maine, which is headed by Paul McCarrier, a top lobbyist for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers Association, leans toward giving medical marijuana caregivers, those authorized to grow marijuana for patients, a chance to expand their market into the recreational realm.
The proposals by Dion, Boyer and Russell look to have the state’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations regulate the market.
Legalize Maine’s proposal would place that regulation under the Department of Agriculture.
Boyer, Russell and Dion also allow individuals to grow and possess marijuana plants in varying numbers. Dion’s legislation allows individuals to possess up to nine plants, with only three of them in the flowering stage of marijuana production.
The Legalize Maine proposal allows for up to six flowering plants and for an unlimited number of seedlings.
The competing measures also offer a variety of tax rates for those who would buy recreational marijuana. Russell’s proposal sets the steepest overall tax rate at 25 percent, which includes 10 percent excise tax and a 15 percent sales tax on recreational marijuana.
Dion’s measure would set the sales tax at the current state sales tax level plus an additional 10 percent. His proposal would tax recreational marijuana at 15.5 percent. The Legalize Maine proposal sets the sales tax on marijuana at a straight 10 percent.
Dion estimates his tax proposal would raise between $10 million and $12 million a year for the state and wouldn’t create a price structure for marijuana that would see Maine’s black market for pot continue to thrive.
Legalize Maine’s measure would allow for the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, twice what Russell, Dion and Boyer would allow under their proposals.
Other differences among the proposals include how many retail stores would be allowed at first. Dion believes it should be capped at 20 statewide, while Boyer’s proposal would cap it at 60 with provisions that would allow up to 100 stores statewide by 2020.
The Legalize Maine proposal doesn’t place any caps on the number of stores statewide, and Russell’s proposal limits the maximum number of stores in any one city to four but is based on population.
Russell also said her bill provides for more balance in the new market between caregivers and dispensaries.
If Maine, one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize possessing small amounts, were to legalize recreational marijuana, it would become the fifth state to do so behind Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Also voting to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014 was Washington, D.C.
Russell, who for three lawmaking sessions in a row has led the legislative charge on recreational marijuana, argues that the Legislature, not an outside ballot question committee, should set policy on legalized marijuana.
She’s determined to see a version of her bill get to at least the floor of the House for a vote. A similar proposal she authored in 2013 fell just four votes short of passage in that body.
Russell and Dion agree that Maine lawmakers could craft a law, to be ratified by voters, that can take into consideration the flaws that have developed in other states that have chosen to legalize marijuana.
Russell, like Boyer, said with Dion now at the table offering a fourth choice, lawmakers and voters may be more compelled to hear with an open mind the arguments for legalized marijuana for adults.
“The big take-away is there is so much excitement that we now have all these bills,” Russell said.
Dion said he and Russell intend to hold an informal informational session for lawmakers later this week during an event at the Senator Inn in Augusta, where they will shop their ideas and attempt to gauge support among lawmakers.
While most conservative Republicans and a handful of Democrats will oppose legalization, there are also a number of libertarian-minded Republicans expected to side with Russell and Dion.
Boyer said he expects there to be an intense lobbying effort on behalf of the dispensaries, which are already set up and regulated under Maine law and see themselves as the best option for setting up a statewide recreational marijuana market.
Portland in 2013 overwhelmingly approved an ordinance change making marijuana legal in that city for adults 21 years and older, although state and federal law both still supersede the city ordinance.
Opposition from Maine’s law enforcement community is expected to be strong against legalizing marijuana and at least one statewide group, the Lewiston-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, will also oppose legalization on the basis it would expand access to the drug for children and teens, exacerbating a drug problem that is already creating widespread problems for education in Maine.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine beat back a push to legalize marijuana for adults in Lewiston when the question went before voters in 2014 as part of a municipal ordinance change. Opposing the ordinance change was Lewiston’s School Committee and the city’s superintendent of schools, Bill Webster.
Scott Gagnon, a spokesman for Smart Approaches to Marijuana in Maine, said it’s clear to him that those in the medical marijuana community are now battling over who would get a leg up in the new recreational market.
“The pot community is splintered between the three plans, all about who would control a market,” Gagnon said in a message to the Sun Journal. The options, as he sees it, are the market will be controlled by either “caregivers, dispensaries or out-of-state corporations.”