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House Fails To Pass Short-Term Moratorium On Retail Marijuana Sales

Jim Mone
AP Photo

The Maine House has failed to extend a moratorium on the recreational marijuana market, voting 81-65 to oppose a bill extending the moratorium that expired Thursday until May 1.

It has been over a year since Maine voters legalized the sale of recreational marijuana. But state lawmakers continue to disagree about how the retail market should operate, and others don’t want to see it created at all.

The moratorium extension was billed by supporters as a clarifying message to the public and would-be marijuana entrepreneurs that retail selling and growing is still on hold in Maine.

The practical effect of the moratorium is limited, since retail operations cannot happen until there’s a regulatory framework in place that creates everything from licensing and testing standards to the appearance of storefronts, labeling and advertising. Supporters of the extension had hoped that it would spur efforts to get those market regulations out of the Legislature and into law.

“The referendum passed in Nov. 2016. We are coming up on the end of our session. It is our job and duty to get something done,” says Democratic state Rep. Theresa Pierce of Falmouth, who chairs the special committee that’s trying to get those marijuana regulations implemented. “I don’t want to kick the can down the field. I don’t think a lot of people want to do that. So I’m hopeful we can find that compromise and move forward.”

Pierce’s panel spent nine months last year crafting an implementation bill, but it was kneecapped at the last minute by a longtime opponent of legal pot, Gov. Paul LePage, and the House Republicans who helped sustain his veto of the bill last fall.

Several Democratic House members joined the Republican minority in blocking the short-term moratorium.

Republican leader Ken Fredette of Newport says he and LePage wanted a longer moratorium, until at least next year.

“It’s also my understanding — and I can stand to be corrected — that to a certain extent licenses cannot be issued by anyone because we do not have any rules yet,” he said.

Fredette’s arguments — that the moratorium should be longer, and that it may not be necessary — seem contradictory. But his comments also illustrate the larger problem that has left the adult-use marijuana market on the tarmac ever since voters narrowly approved it for takeoff over a year ago: many lawmakers continue to believe the state just shouldn’t be in the pot business.

And so far, they haven’t been persuaded by others that legal cannabis is inevitable and that it’s the state’s responsibility to make sure it’s regulated, safe and taxable.

Nevertheless, Pierce says her committee will continue slogging ahead on a bill with that goal in mind.

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