August 21, 2019
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Strange bedfellows made for improved marijuana regulations

AP | Robert F. Bukaty
AP | Robert F. Bukaty
In this Dec. 13, 2017, file photo, James MacWilliams prunes a marijuana plant that he is growing indoors in Portland, Maine.

More than a year ago, Maine voters approved legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use. Since then, lawmakers have dragged their feet in enacting the rules needed to turn the referendum vote into reality.

A moratorium put in place during the last legislative session is set to expire on Feb. 1. Lawmakers, of course, won’t have the needed rules in place by then, requiring a short extension of the moratorium. Extending it for another year, as the governor and some Republican lawmakers want, is not necessary.

It is time for the Legislature to act, not delay.

An unusual coalition — including the Christian Civic League and Legalize Maine — has come together to write a set of proposed regulations. They offer lawmakers a solid blueprint for moving forward with the regulations needed to ensure a safe marijuana market that also raises sufficient revenue for the state.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League, said that his group does not agree with the decision Maine voters made to legalize marijuana, but that the league is realistic. Like the end of Prohibition, marijuana use will happen, he said. So, the league decided it was better to join in the crafting of rules around legalization. At the end of Prohibition, the league advocated for a minimum drinking age of 21 and other regulations around alcohol use.

This is a pragmatic approach that lawmakers should follow as well. Many in the State House, including Gov. Paul LePage, opposed the legalization referendum. The Bangor Daily News editorial board did as well. But, voters passed it and it is time to move forward with legalization.

The group that drafted the bill, led by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, built on the work of a legislative committee that spent the better part of a year drafting a set of regulations that were ultimately rejected by lawmakers after a veto from Gov. Paul LePage. The proposed regulations focused on four priorities. The first was ensuring that Maine’s market was safe and grew incrementally. To accomplish this, the compromise plan sought to write clear and precise definitions around what products can be sold and how they must be labeled and place oversight with the state’s liquor and lottery regulators. It builds on Maine’s medical marijuana system, allowing licensed medical marijuana providers first access to the new Maine recreational marijuana market.

These measures also help address the second priority, protecting children and communities. The third priority — empowering communities — is addressed by allowing municipalities to license marijuana retail facilities on their own if the state fails to act by July 1.

The fourth priority is to maximize state revenue. Although the proposed tax rate — 17.5 percent — is far below what is charged in western states, it is in line with Massachusetts’ 17 percent levy. It is expected to generate $39 million a year in state revenue. Communities would be allowed to assess local permitting fees on top of the state tax.

The new bill isn’t perfect, but it is an improvement over the legislation passed last year, after nine months of work by a special committee tasked with writing legalization rules, but vetoed by LePage. And, if both backers and opponents of legalization support the regulations, that is a stamp of approval that should carry substantial weight with lawmakers.

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