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Maine Lawmakers Debate Moratorium on Pot Legalization

Brett Levin
Flickr/Creative Commons

Maine adults age 21 and older will soon be able to possess and grow recreational marijuana. But Gov. Paul LePage and some lawmakers are calling for a moratorium that could delay implementation of the citizen-initiated law and further push back the retail sale, licensing and testing of cannabis.

The future of the law is now in the hands of people with divergent visions of what legalization should look like.

By the end of the month, Mainers 21 and older will be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, grow up to six mature plants and cultivate an unlimited number of seedlings. They won’t be able to buy or sell marijuana — not yet. That’s because the law gives the state 9 months to create the regulatory structure to license, sell, test and tax it.

Supporters of Question 1 believe that the timeline is adequate and that policymakers should not delay the process. They also agree that lawmakers should move quickly to make it clear that minors cannot possess cannabis, a loophole flagged by Attorney General Janet Mills last fall.

But the governor and some lawmakers say the state also needs more time, more money and potentially more laws before legal pot is ready for prime time.

LePage told Bangor radio station WVOM Tuesday that lawmakers should pass a moratorium.

“I think it would be appropriate. I don’t think they realize what they’ve done,” he says.

LePage says he needs $5 million to create the regulatory structure, and he says lawmakers should create rules to deal with impaired drivers.

Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau agrees. He supports a one-year moratorium. Addressing the topic on the Maine Public call-in show Maine Calling Tuesday, Thibodeau said there other issues drafters of the legislation may not have considered.

For example, he says people in the hospitality industry have asked him about marijuana use in hotel rooms that allow smoking.

“You rent a room and you happen to be a smoker, well does that mean you should walk into a room that smells like Cheech and Chong hung out there over the weekend? I mean, I think not. I don’t think that’s good for tourism in our state,” Thibodeau said.

Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon agrees that the new law creates a slew of what she described as ancillary issues. But she says lawmakers should address those problems as they arise.

Gideon says she doesn’t support an immediate moratorium because the law gives the state 9 months to create the regulatory apparatus.

“Until the regulation and licensing is set up, that is an automatic moratorium on the sale, in fact. And that gives us the space to do what we need to do,” she says.

Changes, fixes and overhauls of marijuana laws are not uncommon in the handful of states that legalized marijuana prior to the November election. In Colorado, for instance, lawmakers passed over 80 bills after the state began overseeing the recreational sale and taxing of pot two years ago.

But proponents of legal marijuana here are concerned that trying to anticipate and address all the issues with legal pot will only delay, and possibly deny, the will of voters.

David Boyer, a who helped lead the pro-legalization campaign, acknowledged that calls for a moratorium were probably emboldened by the recent and surprising move by Massachusetts legislators to push back retail marijuana until July 2018.

But Boyer says a delay here would be a mistake, potentially creating a prolonged period between legal possession and cultivation without a system to oversee the legal sale, testing and taxing.

“Let’s give our best effort to making this deadline. And in 7, 8 months, if we don’t make it and the state needs more time, then let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” Boyer says.

It took Colorado just over a year to develop its regulatory apparatus after voters there approved legal pot. That could be the timetable for Maine, too.

Already there’s discussion that the agency currently tasked with overseeing the retail sale and testing of pot — the Department Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry — may not be the best fit to do so. And resolving some issues, such as impaired driving, could take awhile.

Last year lawmakers attempted to craft a law that set a limit on the amount of the psychoactive component in marijuana, THC, that’s in a driver’s bloodstream to determine impairment.

The proposal failed. As it turns out, different people have different tolerance levels to marijuana. And at the State House, lawmakers have different views of legal marijuana. Those differences will soon be debated.

Mills has already proposed a cannabis commission to oversee legal issues with the end of pot prohibition. Meanwhile, Gideon and Thibodeau are contemplating a stakeholder group to oversee implementation.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.