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Sweeping cannabis policy bill sparks debate from small growers, Mills administration

Marijuana products line a locked cabinet at a marijuana shop in Seattle on March 28, 2019.
Elaine Thompson
AP file
Marijuana products line a locked cabinet at a marijuana shop in Seattle on March 28, 2019.

Small cannabis growers are rallying behind a sweeping proposal before state lawmakers that would overhaul the way Maine's industry is regulated.

They say the legislation is an attempt to eliminate the stigma that they believe still exists within the industry and Maine law. But members of the Mills administration, law enforcement officials and others say the proposal goes too far.

It took the authors of LD 40 more than an hour to outline a new 66-page cannabis policy bill.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, said the proposal is an attempt to rewrite the wrongs of the past and bring parity to an industry that believes it has been overregulated since Maine legalized recreational-use cannabis nearly eight years ago.

"We have heard from participants in both the medical program and the adult-use cannabis that some of what we have put in statute needs to change," Hickman said during a public hearing Monday. "We need some reform, so that businesses can operate more efficiently. We need to establish in statute, the Office of Cannabis Policy, and that's what the bill does."

The proposal would also lower fines for cannabis operators, streamline licensing and renewal procedures and eliminate the annual fingerprinting and FBI background check requirements.

Alex McMahon, CEO of a retail cannabis provider in Lewiston who helped write the cannabis policy bill with Hickman, said the proposal is intended to eliminate the stigma that he believes the state law creates within the Maine cannabis industry.

"It certainly feels like we're perceived as criminals," he said. "We're doing everything we can, we have jumped through all the hoops. We are voluntarily participating in this regulated program. We're trying to be good operators, set a good example, do right by all of our customers, and it feels like we're under the microscope of the state for no reason."

The proposal would also allow growers to cultivate and manufacture products that don't include cannabis within the same physical space.

Mike Saxl, an attorney representing the Maine Cannabis Industry Association, believes the proposed changes could make it easier for licensed growers to do business in Maine. He said the bill could make them more competitive with illegal operators who have been at the center of a growing number of law enforcement busts in recent months.

"The idea is if you can bring down the cost of doing business and the overregulation, then the attractiveness of the illicit market is diminished," said Saxl, a former state lawmaker.

Several cannabis operators compared the proposed changes to the regulations under which alcoholic beverage purveyors currently operate. The bill, for example, would change the ID requirements at adult-use cannabis stores, allowing operators to check an ID and verify the customer's age at the point of sale rather than at the door.

But Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa said the industries should be regulated differently.

"It's not reefer madness to acknowledge the precarious legal space that Maine's legal cannabis programs occupy," she said. "As state officials, we can't ignore the fact that cannabis is still federally illegal."

Figueroa said the proposal is being rushed in the waning weeks of the legislative session and could prompt a massive regulatory disruption in the state's industry without proper discussion and review.

The Maine Sheriffs Association and the Maine Medical Association are among those that are also opposed. And Rebecca Boulos, executive director of the Maine Public Health Association, said the group is concerned by the bill's sweeping nature, and believes that it eliminates regulations that are intended to protect children.

"In general, I would say that it lets businesses off the hook for what should be pretty basic consumer protections and responsible business practices," Boulos said. "And in the end, it redirects that burden to young people with significant penalties."

Monday's public hearing drew more than six hours of testimony. The veterans and legal affairs committee is scheduled to host a work session on the bill later this week.