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Maine Commissioner Warns of Costs Involved in Regulating Marijuana

The head of the state agency that would be charged with overseeing marijuana regulation under ballot Question 1 says his department is simply not prepared to take on that responsibility.

Walter Whitcomb, the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, is urging Mainers to carefully consider their support of the citizen initiative. But proponents say Whitcomb’s concerns can be easily addressed.

In interviews and newspaper OpEd pieces, Whitcomb has stopped short of urging Maine voters to reject Question 1, which would tax recreational marijuana sales like alcohol. But he says his department is currently unable to perform the variety of laboratory analysis and testing that Question 1 assigns under the proposal.

“Well obviously our laboratories are not set up to do that now, there are no standards for that process,” he says.

Whitcomb says there are plenty of negative consequences that would come along with approval of Question 1, which designates his department with taking the lead in ensuring the safety of crop for retail consumption.

“The concern is that pesticides would very likely be used on a crop that’s very valuable, there are no pesticides that have been approved because it’s illegal to test those,” he says. “You literally have the opportunity for people to be poisoned by the attempts that growers may make to control what happens when you grow a valuable product in a confined space. We’re simply not set up for that.”

“If he doesn’t feel like his department is capable of it, I’m sure there are other departments that would welcome the opportunity,” says David Boyer of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is promoting approval of Question 1.

Boyer says Maine’s state agricultural experts possess the expertise to meet their responsibilities under the measure. But he also says that should the citizen initiative be approved and sent to the Maine Legislature, there would be plenty of opportunity for lawmakers to consider whether Whitcomb’s department is the most appropriate to provide oversight.

It could, Boyer says, also include language to ensure that the commissioner received the funding he needs to carry out his charge.

“That’s the beauty of citizen initiatives, is that they can be tweaked, and I think what the commissioner is missing is that by regulating marijuana we’re going to bring in millions and millions in new revenue for our state, including money to implement marijuana regulation,” he says.

Whitcomb says he has serious concerns that marijuana testing could pose a distraction for his department and divert resources from other agency responsibilities that include food crops, public recreation and land and forest management.

The former Republican House minority leader says he had no faith in the Legislature’s ability to resolve the issue in a way that would allay his concerns.

“I don’t think the Legislature could modify what the voters have in front of them to make it compatible at all with what we do in this department,” Whitcomb says. “It has very, very little connection to the kinds of expertise that we currently have in house, and of course these very, very far-ranging legal and law enforcement demands, so it causes a great deal of concern.”

The most recent statewide poll released Sunday by the Portland Press Herald-Maine Sunday Telegram indicated that while approval margins have narrowed, 50 percent of those surveyed support marijuana legalization, 41 percent do not and 9 percent remain undecided.