Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy revived the hopes of Maine legalization advocates Friday, ruling that Secretary of State Matt Dunlap applied “an incorrect and improper standard” to invalidate 21,797 signatures in support of a ballot initiative to legalize adult use of the plant. The citizens’ initiative has been remanded to the Secretary of State’s office to review and again apply the correct standard.
Murphy’s ruling may put the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, or CRMLA, back on track, assuming the Secretary of State’s office does not further review and challenge notary signatures, but CRMLA supporters cannot expect an easy road to victory in November.
While there is increasing national support for legalization, a sizable segment of the population across the country and here in Maine remains opposed or ambivalent.
A February 2016 national poll found that 61 percent of respondents favored legalization. But only a third of those polled were in favor of no restrictions at all on legal use. And smack in the middle, 43 percent indicated they wanted to see restrictions on purchase amounts.
This poll aligns with the 2015 Critical Insights poll, which indicated that likely Maine voters were comfortable with legalization if it came with regulations similar to those governing Maine’s eight state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries.
And even within the medical cannabis community here in Maine, there is a small but vocal subset that opposes the CRMLA effort. These opponents fear that adult-use legalization will lead to the dismantling of our medical cannabis program, either in one fell swoop by legislative fiat or piecemeal by the encroachment of adult-use-style regulation into the medical program’s realm.
Despite the fact that the initiative as written is nearly silent on the medical cannabis program, these opponents — many of them caregivers under Maine law — look to the examples of Washington and Oregon, where medical cannabis programs were in place when adult-use legalization was passed by voters.
In those states, the “medical” market was lightly regulated when a clear set of standards for “adult use” was introduced. For example, in Washington, regulations in the new adult-use market required lab testing for potency and contaminants in adult-use products, but products sold to the medical market had no such oversight. Because of disparities such as these, it seemed wise to more clearly align the unregulated medical market with the regulated adult-use market.
However, medical cannabis proponents in Maine who fear that recreational legalization will undo the existing medical system can take steps now to clear up gray areas in the medical cannabis law and to demonstrate that canna-businesses are successful and responsible.
CRMLA supporters must seize the momentum of their appeal’s success to prove to doubters that legal adult-use cannabis businesses can be well-regulated and responsible members of the community.
If there are parts of the medical program that are perceived as unregulated or open to abuse and diversion, there will be intense pressure to align those parts with what will seem by comparison a clear and regulated adult-use program.
It’s not hard to see this coming. And it’s not hard to prepare for it. When the time comes, medical-use proponents will have a stronger argument for continuing the program if they can point to clear operational regulations, inventory controls and full compliance with tax and other existing laws.
Existing medical dispensaries and caregivers must work together to address unresolved regulatory issues in Maine’s medical program — both to demonstrate the excellence and viability of the medical program in the face of full adult-use legalization and to show how that legalized framework can best be implemented.
Becky DeKeuster is founder and director of community and education of the Wellness Connection of Maine. Wellness Connection operates four state-licensed dispensaries and one cultivation facility.