Marijuana Rules Aren’t Perfect, But They’re Needed As Maine Moves Toward Retail Sales

Photo Credit: Robert F. Bukaty

In 2016, Maine voters approved legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use. Since then, lawmakers have failed to enact the rules needed to turn the referendum vote into reality.

This year appears to be different. Earlier this week, both the Maine House and Senate strongly endorsed a set of new rules for the coming marijuana market. While the rules aren’t perfect — the tax scheme, for example, is convoluted and doesn’t allow for municipal taxes — they are a good compromise. More important, they are needed so the state doesn’t revert to much weaker standards and regulations that accompanied the 2016 referendum question.

It is unclear if Gov. Paul LePage will sign the legislation. He vetoed a similar bill last year and lawmakers failed to override that veto. With stronger legislative support this year, it appears lawmakers could override a veto this year, unless numerous legislators changed their votes.

The regulations are the work of an unusual coalition — including the Christian Civic League and Legalize Maine — that came together to write a set of proposed regulations. They offered 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.

Earlier this year, 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.

This is a pragmatic approach that many lawmakers were wise to 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 regulations for retail sales, which are currently happened in the shadows.

The group that drafted the bill 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 LePage. The proposed regulations focused on four priorities, which are reflected in the amended bill approved by lawmakers this week.

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 it outlawed marijuana social clubs.

The group suggested that the recreational sales market build upon Maine’s medical marijuana system, allowing licensed medical marijuana providers first access to the new Maine recreational marijuana market. This made sense but was rejected by lawmakers, who instead, limited early participation to Maine residents and businesses.

Ensuring the safety of Maine children and communities was a related priority, which is addressed with limits on retail marijuana facilities near schools, daycares and churches, and a ban on social clubs.

A third priority — empowering communities — is addressed by allowing municipalities to set standards for licensing marijuana retail facilities and to limit the number of facilities in their community.

The fourth priority is to maximize state revenue. The tax rate in LD 1719 — about 20 percent — is below what is charged in western states, but is similar to Massachusetts’ levy. A straight percent excise tax would be more straightforward than the wholesale tax per pound and per trim that lawmakers agreed to. Still, this is the highest tax rate lawmakers have considered, so this is an improvement in terms of ensuring that Maine benefits from the coming retail market.

This isn’t perfect. But, the fact that both backers and opponents of marijuana legalization support the regulations is a stamp of approval that carries substantial weight.