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Agreement Reached On Retail Marijuana In Maine, But It Could Be Again Delayed

Susan Sharon
Maine Public File
Baggies of medical marijuana in 2016.

A coalition of supporters and opponents of recreational marijuana says it has come up with a framework to regulate the drug in Maine. The announcement marks a possible path forward as legislators restart the process to create rules that affect how marijuana is tested, taxed and sold. But it also comes amid questions about the possibility of a federal crackdown.

Dozens of people crowded the hearing room Tuesday as the Legislature’s Marijuana Implementation Committee began work on a bill that could set up the regulatory structure for recreational cannabis.

But at the beginning of the hearing, Republican Sen. Roger Katz made it clear that another cloud looms over a process already complicated by competing financial and political interests.

“If you think of this as a football game, we just want to know what the rules are. Is football even legal anymore?” he said.

Taking Katz’s football analogy further, lawmakers want to know if the federal government is preparing for an enforcement blitz in the eight states that contradict the federal law that says recreational marijuana is illegal.

In 2016, Maine voters legalized the sale and growing of recreational marijuana, by a narrow margin. And the voter-approved law has run into trouble ever since.

Lawmakers took months to draft rules to create dozens of regulations, but the resulting bill was vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

The new, second effort was complicated last week when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was rescinding an Obama-era policy that kept the feds from cracking down on the pot trade in the states where the drug is legal.

“From our vantage it just adds more confusion to something that was already really confusing,” said Mike Saxl, a lobbyist representing Narrow Gauge Holdings, a medical marijuana outfit trying to get into the recreational market.

Saxl’s client is among the coalition of groups that announced Tuesday that they had agreed to a general framework to regulate legal marijuana, including strict advertising standards, an opt-in requirement for cities and towns and a sales tax rate of 17.5 percent.

The coalition includes opponents of legal marijuana like The Christian Civic League and Mainers Protecting Youth and Communities, as well as Legalize Maine, the group that helped get the 2016 referendum on the ballot.

Saxl said the groups reached agreement despite divergent interests.

“If we’re going to have adult-use cannabis we should have a serious regulatory infrastructure to protect our families and our communities and also to maximize revenue in the state of Maine,” he said.

Paul McCarrier of Legalize Maine said he agrees, even though the agreement means his group will potentially have to surrender the prospect of marijuana social clubs.

“This has been a very hard-fought compromise and we believe this is the best path forward to protect the interests of all people of Maine — the people who voted for this, the people who voted against this,” he said.

But McCarrier said the Sessions announcement poses a big problem.

“The practical effect of that memo is it puts things on hold, because I don’t know that this administration, or any administration, would move forward with implementing a licensing structure with the threat of federal prosecution and federal asset seizure, as the governor has mentioned in his veto letter and as he’s mentioned publicly,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the feds are poised for a crackdown on legal pot, especially as opinion polls show a growing acceptance for legalization. The Sessions memo largely leaves enforcement decisions up to the 93 U.S. attorneys charged with carrying out Department of Justice policy.

Katz said U.S. attorneys have some independence from the DOJ. But that could mean some states will see a crackdown, while others will be left alone.

“A reality that could, in theory, setup 93 different ways that we deal with these issues in our country,” he said.

And there are recent examples that illustrate Katz’s point.

Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana the same year as Maine. On Monday, the U.S. attorney in the Bay State refused to rule out a crackdown on the voter-approved pot industry.

In Maine, so far, the future is cloudy. Newly appointed U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank said last week that he’s still evaluating how the Sessions decision will impact his office’s charging decisions here.

According to a press release issued shortly before airtime, Frank said his office will make charging decisions on a case-by-case basis and depending on resources. It also said that the U.S. attorney has prioritized prosecution of trafficking cases involving hard drugs, such crack, cocaine and heroin. Possession cases have not been a priority.

It's yet unclear how Frank's press release will affect lawmakers' efforts to create pot rules, or LePage’s opposition.

David Boyer helped lead the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana. He worries LePage could be further emboldened to continue opposing legal pot.

“This DOJ memo gives him plenty of cover to veto the next iteration of legalization that comes to his desk. Hopefully he doesn’t because this is just about discretion for the U.S. attorneys, but he’s concerned about the feds,” he said.

Last year the Legislature passed a moratorium on the retail sale of marijuana that expires in February. Katz and other lawmakers are backing an extension until May.

But it could be a lot longer than that before recreational marijuana is bought and sold in Maine.

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