AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s been well-reported that there are two competing groups trying to place marijuana legalization on the state ballot in 2016. The two plans differ in how much marijuana can be sold, how many retail operations will be allowed, and even which state agency should license growers and sellers.

Despite some overtures at cooperation to get a single ballot question to voters next year, it’s unlikely that the two groups — Marijuana Policy Project and Legalize Maine — will join forces. Both want to “free the plant,” but they have very different visions for what legalization should look like.

Voters won’t be asked to choose between the two proposals. The quirks of the state’s direct citizens initiative process mean that Mainers will be able to support one proposal, both or neither. That means it’s possible that both pass, creating two different laws that disagree with each other.

In legalese, I think that’s called “a total mess.”

Add to the mix that two lawmakers have bills in the Legislature this year that could legalize marijuana before either group above even gets the necessary signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot, and the state could be facing a twisted knot of competing laws and the difficult task of untangling them.

There’s a few ways the competing measures could play out. But first, here are the contenders:

— Legalize Maine would ask voters to legalize up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana possession by adults and legalize unlimited retail establishments. The group would have the program operated by the Department of Agriculture.

— Marijuana Policy Project would ask voters to legalize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana by adults and no more than 70 retail stores in the first year of legalization. Its plan would have the program operated by the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations.

— There also are two bills in the Legislature, one by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, and another by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, to legalize and tax marijuana. There are differences between those two bills as well, the largest being that Russell’s would require approval by voters and Dion’s would not, and that Dion’s would allow for fewer retail locations.

Here are different ways the competing efforts could resolve themselves. It should be noted that these aren’t all the possible scenarios, but they are the most likely.

Both bills in the Legislature fail, and only one citizens initiative qualifies for the ballot.

Short of everyone failing, this is the outcome that would cause the least confusion. Legalize Maine and Marijuana Policy Project both need to collect more than 60,000 signatures in order to be placed on the ballot. If only one of the groups manages to do that, its question would be sent to voters and, if it wins majority support of the electorate, would become law.

Both bills in the Legislature fail, and both citizens initiatives qualify

This is where things start to get messy. If both initiatives are placed on the ballot, voters will be allowed to choose to support one, both or neither.

Because the two initiatives offer different ideas for legalization, voters will have a real choice on their hands, and both groups will be vying to convince supporters to back their vision and theirs alone.

“When it comes down to the public, it’s OK to vote for both,” said Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine. “If you support legalization, then vote for both. But if you’re concerned about the details, we want to talk about the plans, and why ours is better.”

But voters unconcerned with the details or wary of splitting the voter, resulting in neither initiative becoming law, may take the safe bet and check “yes” on both referendums.

If both bills win majority support, the incoming 128th Legislature in 2017 will have to reconcile the bills’ differences. That could result in a final law that looks substantially different than either of the proposals approved by voters.

“A citizens initiative does nothing more than amend the statute,” said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in a recent interview. “The Legislature cannot touch the language until it passes, but then they can treat as they would any of the revised statutes. They can repeal it if they want to. They never have, but they could.”

One of the legalization bills in the Legislature passes this year

Confusion over competing referendums and the legal nightmare of lawmakers having to reconcile disparate legalization schemes are the reason Russell, a leading voice for legal weed in Maine, says it’s so important for the Legislature to lead.

If Russell’s bill was to pass before the first session ends this summer, it would go out to voters in this November’s election, a full year before either of the citizens initiatives.

“I think the Legislature should get ahead of this and present one clean policy and let the voters decide whether to legalize or not,” she said.

But Russell, it should be said, is hedging her bets: The odds of her bill passing through the GOP-controlled Senate or gaining approval of Gov. Paul LePage are slim. She’s thrown her hat in with the Marijuana Policy Project and actively supports their citizens initiative. Likewise, the Marijuana Policy Project has said they’d pull their referendum campaign if Russell’s bill passes.

Dion also said he thinks lawmakers should hit the ground running before they find themselves inheriting a mess from two victorious referendums, though for obvious reasons he believes it’s his bill that should get them going.

“We’re asking a lot from the mechanism of the ballot initiative to outline a complete regulatory apparatus,” he said. “And I think you run the danger of flooding the public with so many details that they’ll have a hard time making an informed decision. That’s not saying they couldn’t, but that they may end up surprised by some things.”

Safeguards in the Legislature all but ensure that only one legalization bill among Dion’s and Russell’s would pass, rather than both.

One last kink

As if all the above wasn’t complicated enough, there could be one final kink in the hose. While Legalize Maine has already had the language of its bill approved, Marijuana Policy Project is still awaiting final approval of its language from the secretary of state.

Embedded in Marijuana Policy Project’s proposed bill is a provision that could negate the whole controversy — a section that indicates that if its bill and Legalize Maine’s appear on the same ballot, whichever wins the most votes will pass into law, while the other is negated.

David Boyer, Marijuana Policy Project’s campaign manager in Maine, said the provision isn’t intended to silence the opposition, but rather to represent the will of the voters.

“Just like any other election, whoever gets the most votes should win,” he said. “The will of the voters should be followed. If one gets more votes than the other, that’s the one with a larger consensus.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.


Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...