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Hearing on Recreational Marijuana Bill Draws Crowd to Augusta

Mal Leary
Maine Public
Valerie Webster, from Hampden, testifies at the State House Tuesday on a bill that would govern the sale of recreational marijuana.

There was no shortage of comments as scores of Mainers filled a hearing room and two overflow rooms at the State House to express their concerns with proposed legislation to regulate the recreational sale of marijuana in Maine. And those testifying were not shy about spelling out what they don’t like about the bill.

Members of the special committee set up to draft legislation were told the draft bill needs plenty of changes, and some, like Joanne Reese of Bryant Pond, think the committee has strayed too far from the measure that voters approved last fall by just under 4,000 votes.

“I oppose this bill because I am concerned it doesn’t uphold the will of the voters, as others have noticed. And I encourage you to keep the original language of the bill intact whenever possible,” she says. “I also oppose this bill because it compromises the integrity of the medical program.”

Maine has allowed the use of marijuana for medical purposes since voters approved it at referendum in 1999. And several people questioned the committee’s decision to propose changing that program, too.

“This would make plants that are currently legally being grown by patients that may have been in compliance with the law for over a decade, all of a sudden as soon as this went into effect they would in effect become criminals,” says Hilary Lister, a former medical marijuana caregiver who now advocates for cannabis patients.

Also unhappy with the draft bill is David Boyer, the political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which led the successful marijuana legalization campaign. Specifically, Boyer objects to a proposed delay in the establishment of social clubs, places similar to coffee shops, where people could use marijuana.

“Social club delay — not cool. We think that towns should have the right to decide what is best for them. That is the whole crux of Question 1,” he says.

Others urged the committee to change its tax proposal. The panel is proposing a 20 percent sales tax, double the rate in the original bill. Campaign supporter Alysia Melnick proposed setting the tax at 12 percent with yearly increases until it reached 20 percent.

Another red flag for some people is access for youth. Jamie Comstock is worried the committee’s proposal makes it too easy.

“Drive-thru and internet sales and delivery of marijuana create increased opportunities for youth access to marijuana. They reduce the ability for employees to check IDs and appraise patrons for signs of visible intoxication,” she says.

At times, the testimony became emotional. Valerie Webster from Hampden says the land across the street from her house has been bought by an out-of-state commercial firm that plans to build a large marijuana growing facility. She worries about the effect on her property values.

“I worry if I am ever going to be able to sell it. Am I ever going to get my money back out if this with a commercial facility across the street?” she says.

Tom Obear, a member of Legalize Maine, says the committee didn’t adopt enough standards to protect Maine’s small businesses.

“Such as stronger residency requirements, smaller cultivation canopies or even a simple stipulation that if you own a dispensary in another state you can’t apply in Maine. But, you didn’t. So, I wonder, is it that you are really terrible at your jobs, or you are really good at tailoring legislation to corporations?” he says.

The committee plans to complete a proposal for the full Legislature to consider in a special session next month. Meanwhile, committee members say the hope to have retail sales underway by early next year isn’t going to happen.

Once lawmakers pass a bill, rules will need to be adopted to implement it, along with establishment of a licensing system and a state inspection program.

This story was originally published Sept. 26, 2017 at 2:05 p.m. ET.