On Thursday last week, a legislative committee decided to rewrite Maine’s recreational cannabis law to make the tax rate twice what it was before, give host towns a tax cut, and secure residents of Maine a two-year head start in the pot industry. However, leaders of the committee have concerns that the bill will not survive the LePage administration.
They are worried that officials under LePage would shred the bill, either by delaying implementation of it or by vetoing it outright, even if a special legislative session passes the bill next month. Republican Senator from Augusta, Roger Katz, who also co-chairs the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee, has particular concerns.
Katz claims that the panel received almost no counsel from state agencies when it went to them for advice, even on crucial issues, including taxation. “The message to our colleagues is going to be, ‘You have the choice. You can vote for a reasonable bill, or you can vote for chaos,’” Katz stated. “And that is going to be the same thing with respect to implementation.”
Absent two members, the joint committee approved the bill on a 13-2 majority vote. The committee began work on the bill seven months ago, four months after voters in Maine legalized cannabis for adult use at the polls. The bill is now 70 pages long, and its contents detail what will happen to the tax dollars that Maine generates from legal recreational sales. Some of the bill’s highlights include:
- The bill citizens passed into law originally called for a 10 percent sales tax. The new bill adds a 10 percent excise tax, as well, which it will base on weight.
- Towns that host grow sites or retail stores will receive five percent of taxes the state collects from those facilities.
- A town hosting any recreational pot business would receive one percent of all marijuana taxes the state collects throughout Maine.
- Anyone applying for a recreational pot license must have lived in the state and paid at least two years of taxes.
- Landowners may not have more than 12 plants growing on their premises for recreational purposes, regardless of how many people live on the property. However, towns could vote to increase the limit to 18 plants.
- No pot facilities can operate within 1,000 feet of schools, but the state gives towns the authority to lower this to 500 feet, if they so desire.
Additionally, those with both medical and recreational licenses can grow and process both in the same building, but not in the same place at the same time. Retail outlets can sell them both from the same premises, provided they have the licenses to do so legally, and only if they can separate them with different entrances and counters, similar to the way it works in Colorado.
After handing out local shares of state marijuana taxes, Maine will give law enforcement agencies six percent of the remainder. Another six percent will fund youth prevention and public awareness programs, and the rest will go into the state’s General Fund. The new bill killed earlier provisions allowing drive-up and internet sales, one-time transfers of medical plants into the recreational market, and the conversion of medical pot dispensaries into for-profits from taxpaying nonprofits.
According to Katz, the bill oversees and regulates a new market in a manner designed to discourage a parallel underground market, while securing benefits and protections for Maine residents. “It gives an honest advantage to Maine citizens by giving them the first opportunity to participate in every facet of this industry,” Katz explained.
Katz also said that, “It taxes in a fair and appropriate way. It does everything we can do to protect our youth and to allocate resources to public safety. It does so in a way that I think is generally simple and understandable to Maine people.” However, members of the committee worry the bill may never actualize, even if Legislature supports it next month.
Committee leaders asked the state repeatedly for helping drafting the new rules, but were, in large part, mostly ignored. Committee co-chair representative, a Democrat from Falmouth named Teresa Pierce, hopes that Governor Paul LePage will continue respecting the will of the people and implement legalized laws, as other legalization-opposing state governors were doing before him.
“I find it, I will say it, appalling that we have heard this might not be acted upon,” Katz made clear. “It is wildly frustrating to have worked nine months on something and know that that might be the outcome.” She is optimistic that the public would pressurize LePage and his administration to act and approve the new bill. “It is a good bill,” Pierce said. “It should be rightfully implemented.”
Also serving on the committee, Representative and Democrat from York, Lydia Blume, agreed with Katz. “This very important citizen’s referendum was passed by the citizens of Maine and should be respected.” Blume stated. “We have worked here as a team to respect it and to make it better. To not have the cooperation of the executive, to have him playing games with us, I find it appalling.”
Katz claims not having spoken with LePage directly about the bill, but had heard second- and third-hand that the governor has no interest in putting the bill into effect, even if passed and made law. He hopes LePage will come to his senses, as he says, “To me, there are only two groups of people who ought to be wanting to make sure this regulatory system gets put in place: People who want legalization of marijuana and people who do not want legalization.”
Republican from Windham, Representative Patrick Corey, chided his co-workers for spouting hearsay. However, Representative Kimberly Monaghan, a Democrat from Cape Elizabeth, considers LePage’s actions louder than his words. “I think it is wildly inappropriate that we have not had any type of assistance from agencies when we needed it most,” she said. “It is obvious. It is not like we are imagining things.”
Members of the committee tried to find ways that would force LePage’s hand. They wrote default measures into the bill, such as permitting caregivers to supply recreational weed if the state fails to issue licenses in time, as well as deadlines for action. However, the committee heard from analysts that there is no way for force the state to issue licenses, as its agencies must first create a rulemaking system before they can even start accepting applications for them.
Even as legalization advocates look forward to the forthcoming special Legislative session, they are celebrating the committee’s vote. However, they believe that they will need at least a two-thirds majority vote in the session to override the expected veto from LePage’s administration. LePage himself has yet to say whether he will veto a bill to legalize weed, but he has spoken against doing so in the past.
Advocacy groups are now hoping that he will honor a pledge made during his re-election campaign that he would support the will of the people on the issue of legalization. “I think this is going to be a successful implementation of what the citizens voted on. It is not the exact language that the citizens voted on, but it involved a lot of stakeholders and it went through a robust review process.”
That is what the president of Legalize Maine, Paul McCarrier, said. He also made the following promise to residents of Maine: “So now we are going to continue to make sure that the citizens’ will gets implemented correctly, and that Maine citizens come first in this new, burgeoning industry.” Director of the Maine chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project expects LePage to veto the bill.
However, despite his belief in an expected veto, David Boyer remains optimistic that the bill will pass into law. He said, “I think we can put together a strong coalition of Republicans and Democrats to get to two-thirds. Not getting two-thirds puts us a year behind opening retail centers and even further behind states like Massachusetts, Nevada, and California, and only encourages the illicit market.”
The two dissenting votes belonged to Corey and Representative Craig Hickman, a Democrat from Winthrop. Corey has objections to the way in which the state would measure cultivated marijuana, and Hickman has concerns about placing limits on personal cultivation on big parcels of rural land. The bill’s final written draft will not emerge until October 10.