Maine Takes A Big Step Toward Retail Marijuana Sales

Photo Credit: Robert F. Bukaty

A supermajority of the Maine House of Representatives endorsed a regulatory bill for the state’s new recreational marijuana market Tuesday, bringing the state the closest it has been to implementing a 2016 legalization referendum.

It’s the Legislature’s second bid in a year to set up a commercial system for marijuana cultivation and sales. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed last year’s attempt to implement a regulatory system, and a special marijuana committee returned to the issue in 2018.

On Tuesday, the Democratic-led House voted 112-34 to back a new bill from that panel. It sets an effective 20 percent tax rate on marijuana products, gives Maine residents a priority for commercial licenses, puts the Department of Administrative and Financial Services in charge of Maine’s recreational and medical marijuana systems, and sets safety standards.

The bill faces further action in both chambers of the Legislature, but if that margin holds there is a good chance the new bill could withstand a veto from the Republican governor. However, 16 Democrats and 15 Republicans — some pro-marijuana and others LePage allies — opposed it.

Backers of the bill say it is the best possible legislative solution to clear up a gray marijuana market, where it’s legal to possess recreational marijuana but not to sell it.

Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, voted against last year’s bill, but she called the product that the House voted for on Tuesday “a better bill” and endorsed it.

“I realize that this will be a work in progress going forward, but let’s get us off on good footing,” she said.

Some Republican opponents argued Tuesday that it was wrong to support marijuana because it remains federally illegal. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, asked rhetorically, “If the citizens were to do a referendum to legalize heroin, do we then have an obligation to make the heroin law a better law?”

Legislators have tossed out a cap on commercial production of marijuana that was favored by Legalize Maine, a group of small medical marijuana providers that wrote the voter-approved bill.

Paul McCarrier, Legalize Maine’s president, opposed the bill and told WVOM on Tuesday that the proposed law would pave the way for “Big Tobacco” to control Maine’s marijuana market.

On the House floor, Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, a member of the marijuana committee who led opposition to the bill from the left in the Legislature, said that moving control of the medical marijuana program to the finance department from the Department of Health and Human Services would hurt patients.