Maine House Passes Bill That Would Launch Recreational Marijuana Market

Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett

The latest adult-use marijuana bill cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.

The Maine House of Representatives voted 112-34 in favor of a bill that would launch the state’s commercial recreational marijuana market. This bill is more conservative than last year’s, which failed to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto.

“We worked hard to compromise and find common ground,” said Rep. Teresa Pierce, the House chairman of the marijuana committee that wrote the bill. “Our town officials, our local businesses, our parents and families and communities that each of us represent are all asking us to put a reasonable, highly structured regulatory system in place… They recognize the status quo just isn’t what we should be doing.”

The 112-34 vote is a veto-proof margin, which sets this bill up for a more successful future than last year’s effort to launch the market. Last year’s bill was initially passed by the House with an 81-50 special session vote, but 17 lawmakers who supported the bill defected during the November effort to override LePage’s veto. The final tally on the veto override was 74-62. It takes two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature to override a gubernatorial veto.

Several staunch marijuana opponents voted in favor of the bill Tuesday, saying it is better than allowing the unregulated black market to continue unchecked.

“I did not support legalizing marijuana,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester. “What we have before us today is what I think is a much better bill. I need this to be as strict and as stringent as possible. I need real protection in this for my family. I think Mainers are asking for that… As long as its determined to be legal, I think we need it to be as strict as possible to protect our families.”

A few cannabis supporters voted against it, like Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, saying it would hurt small marijuana farmers and the medical marijuana program. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who led the effort to sustain LePage’s veto last fall, still opposes it, saying Maine shouldn’t legalize sales as long as marijuana is federally illegal.

This bill would levy a combination of sales and excise taxes that would result in an effective tax rate of 20 percent, which would make Maine’s tax rate one of the lowest in the nation. Analysts predict that would bring in about $16.3 million in marijuana taxes in 2021, which is likely to be the first full year of market sales.

The bill would also reduce the amount of marijuana plants that adult Mainers could grow at home from six to three. Municipalities would be able to decide if they would allow a marijuana business to operate locally, but they would not get a share of marijuana taxes and couldn’t levy impact fees. The bill wouldn’t allow social clubs, which was part of the 2016 voter initiative. The bill would give licensing preference for all adult-use businesses to residents who have lived here for at least four years.

The bill now heads to the Senate for a vote. If passed, the bill would go to LePage, who would have 10 days to decide whether to sign it, veto it or let it go into law without his signature.