This week the Legislature’s Veterans & Legal Affairs Committee considered a measure to delay the implemention of a new citizen initiative to end the prohibition on the commercial cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of recreational marijuana and marijuana products. Legislative leaders say the bill LD 88, which would push out the deadline from this fall until February 2018, will give  a special 17-member joint select committee an additional three months to develop rules and regulations for retail shops and marijuana bars. The proposal would also fix a drafting error in the citizen initiative by creating penalties for underage possession of pot.

On Tuesday, groups representing medical professionals, municipalities and fundamentalist Christians came out strongly in support of the three-month extension. Scott Gagnon, who led the No on 1 campaign as the head of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, argued that marijuana should be tightly regulated. 

“This narrowest of margins between yes and no should not be interpreted as a mandate for unfettered and unchecked marijuana legalization,” said Gagnon in support of the bill. “It is important that we do not ignore the deep concerns of the over 377,000 Mainers who said no out of their interest to protecting their children and their communities.”

The proposed deadline extension would still allow people age 21 and over to legally possess up to 21⁄2 ounces of marijuana and consume it in private residences when the referendum takes effect on January 30.

Sen. Justin Chenette (D-York Cty.) urged committee members to follow the original time frame outlined in the referendum. “How do we know that we can’t develop a complete regulatory framework within the nine-month time frame that was allotted to us by Maine voters?” asked Chenette. “If we put this much time, effort and energy into requesting  more time, we might actually start working on this and actually get somewhere.”

Legalize Maine President Paul McCarrier, who drafted the referendum and helped lead the Question 1 campaign, argued that postponing licensing rules would have a “chilling effect” on investment by marijuana entrepreneurs. He added that it would also prevent Maine from getting a head start on developing a marijuana tourism industry, as Massachusetts, which also legalized pot by voter referendum in November, recently delayed allowing pot shops and bars to open until mid-2018.

Legalization advocates also noted that the plan would delay the ability of the state to collect taxes on marijuana that is currently being sold on the black market. The referendum directs 2 percent of the revenue to be earmarked for distribution to cities and towns. 

Caregivers Urge Preservation of Medical Program

 The referendum has also reignited a feud between the small medical marijuana grower community and pot dispensaries. Currently, there are eight retail medical dispensaries and 3,600 medicinal pot growers, known as “caregivers,” who are licensed by the state to cultivate and sell marijuana to certified patients. Caregiver and patient advocate Hillary Lister expressed concerns about whether LD 88 would impact another bill promoted by dispensaries that would bypass the rule-making process and allow medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational pot early. Both Lister and Appleton activist Will Neils worried that the Legislature could implement rules and regulations that would put caregivers at a competitive disadvantage to dispensaries and large out-of-state investors. 

“I don’t know about you,” said Neils, “but I don’t think that it’s a very good idea to shut down what has been one of the things that has kept thousands and thousands of families on their family properties for literally now multiple generations.”

However, a representative from the Maine Medical Association, which represents around 4,000 physicians, blasted the medical marijuana program during testimony.  

“We think it’s a mess,” said MMA lobbyist Gordon Smith. “We think that while a few hundred maybe people should qualify for medical marijuana, [but] there’s now like 50,000 certificates out there.… That’s why some physicians preferred to legalize it completely because they don’t want the medical community to be seen as fronting for recreational use, which is largely the case under the medical marijuana law.”

Smith argued that marijuana is useful for conditions like wasting syndrome for HIV patients and patients suffering from the effects of chemotherapy, but questioned its effectiveness in treating other conditions. Neils fired back against Smith’s assertions, arguing that marijuana is effective in treating addicts who have been “junked out” by doctors over-prescribing pharmaceutical drugs. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage has been questioning the purpose of even having a medical marijuana program. “One thing I don’t understand is there’s a big lobby now pushing to keep medical marijuana but if you can buy marijuana anywheres and it’s legal, why do you need a regulatory environment to do medical marijuana?” said LePage in a radio appearance on January 5. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”