Marijuana Will Soon Become Legal in Maine — Here’s What Happens Next

Dec 21, 2016

The Question 1 recount is over. And Wednesday, the Maine secretary of state certified the election results.

Question 1, which legalizes the possession, cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana, will soon become law.

Soon, but not yet.

Gov. Paul LePage will have 10 days to issue a proclamation after he receives the certified election results. The legislation becomes law 30 days after the governor signs the proclamation.

A lot of steps can, and likely will, happen between now and then, including some changes to fix the voter-approved law. State lawmakers, who reconvene for the legislative session after the first of the year, will likely introduce proposals to change the law, including a section that some worry allows minors to possess cannabis.

But more on those changes later.

Once the legislation becomes law, the following will take place right away:

  • Adults 21 and older will be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis. Adults will be able to grow up to six mature plants, 12 immature plants and an unlimited number seedlings.

  • The clock will start ticking for state policymakers to construct a regulatory system to license, test and track the cultivation and retail sale of marijuana. The voter-initiated legislation gives the state nine months to complete this task, although it’s possible lawmakers could delay the timetable. In other words, it could be a year before the sale and transfer of pot is legal.

  • A special message to those thinking legalization means they’ll be able to legally walk around in public and smoke or consume pot: This is fantasy. It will not happen. The new law does not allow for the public consumption of cannabis. It does, however, allow for the creation of cannabis clubs, basically like the cannabis clubs you may have read about (visited?) in Amsterdam. But these social clubs won’t come online until the regulatory system is in place.

  • But the law allows towns to ban social clubs. It also allows towns to bar retail pot shops and cultivation operations. Expect some, perhaps many, Maine towns to do this. Colorado legalized recreational pot in 2012 and retail sales began in 2014. Since then, roughly 70 percent of the state’s municipalities have banned commercial pot operations. A handful of Maine towns are reportedly already considering these bans. Dozens of others are contemplating moratoriums on allowing commercial operations. A few, including Portland, South Portland, Bangor and Westbrook, have enacted moratoriums.

What’s the future of legal pot in Maine?

Umm, hazy? No, it really is.

Legalized pot was a $1 billion industry in Colorado last year, and it has pumped a lot of tax revenue to the state, cities and towns there. How much revenue Maine can expect is unclear. The Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office estimated $8.8 million in revenue after the first year of retail sales. But supporters of Question 1 say that estimate is conservative.

An analyst for New Frontier, a D.C.-based firm that studies the marijuana industry, told Maine Public earlier this year that Maine’s high rate of illicit use bodes well for the legal market.

But Maine’s participation in that market will likely depend on the regulatory structure state policymakers create.

Legislative leaders have already signaled a desire to create a cannabis stakeholder group to advise and oversee implementation. And Gov. Paul LePage recently said that the agency currently charged with drafting regulations and regulating marijuana may not be the right one.

Right now that authority rests with the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, but it could end up under the agency that oversees the state’s liquor and lottery operations.

Changing the regulatory agency is just one example of how the new pot law could evolve before it goes into full effect. As written, retail cultivation is limited to 800,000 square feet, but regulators could add more.

Regulators can also limit the concentration of THC in retail pot products. THC is the psychoactive component in marijuana.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are bound to make changes. Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau has already said that he wants to make sure that marijuana edible products are not marketed or appealing to children. He’s likely to receive a lot of support in that effort.

There could also be proposals to change how much legal marijuana is taxed. The voter-approved law puts the sales tax at 10 percent. LePage has said it should be higher. While some lawmakers could agree, legalization proponents caution that too high of a tax could eliminate the incentive for sellers and buyers to participate in the regulated market and push the dope trade underground.

Additionally, lawmakers will likely revisit an issue they were unable to resolve last session: Stoned driving. While it’s currently illegal to drive impaired via alcohol or pot, there is no test to measure impairment from marijuana. And, there’s a vigorous debate over whether such a test would even determine impairment because THC affects different people, well, differently.

Maine will become the eighth state to legalize recreational marijuana. But the process to shape the future of legalization has just begun.