PORTLAND, Maine — The conflict between two groups seeking to place recreational marijuana legalization questions on the 2016 state ballot continues to deepen as signature-gatherers take to the streets.
After months of negotiations — which the leader of one of the groups characterized as a sham — failed to achieve a compromise, animosity between Legalize Maine and the Marijuana Policy Project made its way to the streets and storefronts of Portland, as the two organizations each work to gather more than 60,000 signatures required to place their questions on the November 2016 ballot.
Homegrown versus Washington
The president of Legalize Maine, Paul McCarrier said the Marijuana Policy Project and its local affiliate, Regulate Maine, are resorting to Washington-style political tactics that include spreading misinformation, vague threats and bad talking when interacting with his group.
“We were really hoping that they would work with us, adopt our language and be the heroes of this state by giving the locals the power,” McCarrier said.
However, David Boyer, campaign manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he tried to work with Legalize Maine for six months but stopped negotiations after he believes McCarrier was trying to “trick” him.
“They would say that they wanted to work together one day and that they didn’t the next,” Boyer said. “There’s really no point to be collecting two petitions for marijuana to be legal.”
According to McCarrier, representatives of the two groups met in January for an intense series of negotiations, all of which ended with negotiators from the MPP walking away from the table and demanding Legalize Maine sacrifice its “core values” related to jobs and economic development.
But Boyer believes Legalize Maine’s initiative simply is “poorly written” and its proposed legalization of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana is too much, too soon.
“We’re pushing to make 1 ounce legal because that’s what everyone in the country is doing,” Boyer said. “It’s about 28 joints. Most people would consider that fair.”
Another difference between the two is that Legalize Maine wants growers to have unlimited seedlings.
“It’s probably not a good idea to put the word ‘unlimited’ in an initiative that legalizes a drug,” Boyer said.
MPP has modeled its campaign and proposal after successful legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington. It is part of a national legalization strategy. Legalize Maine’s is more closely aligned with Maine’s existing medical marijuana community.
Compensation for signature-gatherers also represents a point of conflict for the two groups. Legalize Maine pays its canvassers $1.50 per signature, according to McCarrier, who said MPP relies on paid representatives from outside Maine to do some of its signature gathering.
When asked about McCarrier’s claim, Boyer declined to comment on how much his group pays canvassers, but said all of his group’s signature gatherers are from Maine.
Who’s in charge?
Both groups believe marijuana should be legal, but they differ on which state agency should regulate recreational use of marijuana.
The Marijuana Policy Project proposes the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery regulate recreational marijuana use. Legalize Maine believes oversight should rest with the Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry.
Boyer and McCarrier said this difference in policy is the main reason their groups can’t work together.
“The most important thing to realize is that marijuana is an agricultural commodity,” McCarrier said. “The MPP wants to employ a cookie-cutter model across the whole nation and that won’t necessarily work for Maine.”
Boyer at the MPP believes marijuana is more like beer and wine than milk and honey, and because Maine already has a system in place for regulating alcohol, transitioning to marijuana in a similar fashion would cost less taxpayer money.
“The program would just be set up faster,” Boyer said. “They want to regulate marijuana like you would tomatoes.”
According to McCarrier and the volunteers at Legalize Maine working to ensure more local control in setting the rules for legal recreational marijuana, the MPP’s initiative doesn’t protect farmers and local entrepreneurs and doesn’t allow for municipalities to set the limits on the amount of retail stores. Legalize Maine offers a farm-to-table model that keeps the money in the pockets of Maine farmers, McCarrier said.
“The MPP’s proposed licensing and application fee is exorbitantly high,” McCarrier said. “Farmers that want to make money and get involved with this won’t be able to pay the $30,000 cultivation fee.”
Boyer said MPP’s proposed startup costs are fair compared with liquor licenses across the nation and are small compared with the amount of money one eventually could make in the marijuana industry. It would cost $3,000 to apply for a cultivation license under the Marijuana Policy Project’s plan, compared with $250 for Legalize Maine.
“Marijuana is a huge market, and our application fee is pretty fair,” Boyer said. “We want to make sure people know what they are doing when they fill out this 50-page application.”
The volunteers at Legalize Maine worry lack of local involvement and high price to get started would pave the way for big national corporations to suck up all the marijuana revenues, isolating Maine farmers. Boyer calls Legalize Maine claims he’s campaigning with a big corporate Washington organization “laughable.”
“I don’t even like Washington that much,” Boyer said. “We’re based in Washington because that’s where the lawmakers are, and we’re trying to influence the people that make laws. We have a budget of a couple million [dollars], so we’re small potatoes compared to other national single interest organizations.”
According to Boyer, McCarrier and others at Legalize Maine have sown the seeds of distrust concerning the MPP, but in reality their initiatives are not significantly different.
“We’re not going to bring the sky down,” Boyer said. “I don’t know how much more evil the guys that oversee alcohol can be over the guys in agriculture.”
Despite the shared goal, the two legalization initiatives are causing some confusion on the streets and, at the very least, some uncomfortable situations for the group’s signature-collectors.
“It’s a shame that they can’t just work together,” Portland resident Beth Pool said. “I’ve signed both of them, thinking they were the same thing.”
“The problem is that people are confused,” said Brooke Leigh-Hayne, who was collecting signatures for Legalize Maine outside Portland’s Reggae Fest on Aug. 7. “A lot of people I talk to think they’ve already signed for Legalize Maine, when they’ve signed for MPP. They just think they are signing up for free weed, but they don’t realize the fine print.”
According to Leigh-Hayne, the animosity between canvassers seemed to start with an article in the West End News by a coordinator from the MPP, which she described as “rude” and “biased.”
“I do my best to just tell people the nuts and bolts of both campaigns,” Leigh-Hayne said. “I don’t down talk the MPP, because it’s going to make us both look bad.”
Angela Agganis, a volunteer for Legalize Maine, developed a signature-collecting strategy that involved trailing behind an MPP canvasser and saying, “Hey, do you want to sign a version of what you just signed that would also protect Maine farmers and business?”
According to Agganis, the MPP volunteer became visibly upset and told her that wasn’t fair.
“She tried to interrupt me and talk over me very rudely,” Agganis said. “And they are not explaining the differences of the campaign to people. If they did, people wouldn’t agree to sign.”
Sam Pelletier, a Maine native who has been collecting signatures for Regulate Maine, said he’s experienced no animosity while out collecting signatures on the same street as Legalize Maine canvassers.
“Everyone I’ve worked with, or worked next to has been very polite,” said Pelletier. “I think there’s been confusion, but I make a point to talk about our differences. I’m happy to get into the details with anyone.”
“Our volunteers can be a little emotionally invested in our campaign,” Boyer said. “I’ve told our [couple of dozen] circulators to be polite to other canvassers.”
Legalize Maine’s homegrown pitch resonated with Jesse Semba, a Portland resident on his way to the Reggae Fest.
“When I lived in California, I’ve seen what the large corporate grows do,” Semba said. “It’s not about getting the product to the people; it’s just an excuse for them to make money. The people that grow here actually care about Mainers.”
Both initiatives could make it to the ballot, and voters could endorse both, which would lead to some messy legal implications that would have to be sorted out by the Legislature, courts or state regulators.
“When it comes down to the public, it’s OK to vote for both,” McCarrier said. “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.”
On the street level, canvassers continue to disagree on what the potential future of legal marijuana in Maine would look like. In early August, each group said it had collected about 25,000 signatures.