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New Bill Would Delay Implementation of Some Parts of Legalized Marijuana

Steve Mistler
Maine Public
David Boyer, who helped lead the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana last year, speaks at press conference Wednesday opposing a moratorium proposed by legislative leaders.

Maine could soon join Massachusetts in extending the time required to implement a voter-approved law that legalizes the retail sale and licensing of recreational marijuana.

Legislative leaders have unveiled a proposal that pushes back the start date for licensed retail shops until February of next year. Supporters of legalization are unhappy with the bill, saying that it further delays regulation of a product currently sold on the black market.

Maine voters narrowly approved Question 1 in November, and the law is supposed to take effect at the end of the month. When it does, adults age 21 and older will be able to possess, grow and use marijuana.

Retail licensing and sales were not supposed to begin for at least 9 months. That’s because the law gives state officials time to develop rules around licensing and testing, and to write regulations that cover everything to tracking the crop to packaging it for sale in retail shops.

But legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle want to give the state three additional months to come up with retail regulations.

“We want to make sure we get it right. We’re talking about public safety and we take that incredibly seriously,” says House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat from Freeport.

But supporters of legalization say the proposal doesn’t take the will of voters seriously. David Boyer, who helped lead the campaign for Question 1 last year, says politicians in Augusta should have given the built-in 9-month delay a chance.

“To it before we’ve even started is just, you know, it stinks. It’s lame. It doesn’t make sense,” he says.

The moratorium proposal does not affect the ability of adults age 21 and older to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, grow up to six mature plants, 12 immature plants and unlimited seedlings. That will still become legal come the end of this month.

Boyer argues that the bill supported by Gideon and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau will create a gray area in which possession is legal, but buying and selling is not. He says that means the black market for marijuana will continue to flourish.

“This year or two means that it will have to continue to go to the black market to purchase marijuana. That’s what we’re trying to stop. That’s what we’re trying to minimize,” Boyer says.

According to federal health data, nearly 20 percent of Mainers ages 12 and older have used marijuana in the past year. That’s sixth highest rate in the country.

An analysis by New Frontier, a D.C.-based company tracking the markets for legal pot, pegged Maine’s illicit use as the 11th highest in the country. It’s one of the reasons the state was targeted for legalization, with outside groups spending over $2 million last year to pass the referendum.

While many legislators see legalization as a big opportunity to increase state revenues, some, including Thibodeau, are wary of rushing in.

In fact, Thibodeau says he wanted a far-reaching moratorium, delaying both personal use and possession. That would have likely run into stiff opposition in a Legislature divided between the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House. So he and Gideon settled on the new proposal, as well as the creation of a commission to oversee the development of marijuana regulations.

“This is simply an opportunity to set some reasonable public policy around an important issue,” he says.

Those policies go beyond the regulatory framework for retail marijuana and encompass issues such as how to test for impaired driving. Also, lawmakers have submitted dozens of other marijuana bills this session, which means that the law approved by voters this past fall could look very different by the time it’s finally implemented.

The proposal to give the Legislature more time to work on retail regulations is an emergency measure, meaning it needs a two-thirds vote from the House and Senate. Thibodeau expects the bill to pass overwhelmingly, but supporters of legalization hope they can cobble together a coalition of libertarians and Democrats to put the brakes on a moratorium.

The effort by both sides begins next week, when the bill is expected to have a public hearing.