The Maine House of Representatives just passed a revamp of the cannabis legalization measure approved by voters in 2016, putting the state on track to finally begin issuing cannabis business licenses next year. Although marijuana is technically now legal in the state, retail sales have been on hold, thanks to the efforts of Governor Paul LePage and other conservative politicians, who have been fighting to delay the measure at every turn.
The state Legislature approved a similar regulatory bill last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. LePage, pushing back the rollout of a retail cannabis market by at least another year. This year, however, legislators went back to the drawing board and drafted a new, more conservative version of the regulatory bill. The total number of cannabis plants each resident is allowed to home-grow has been reduced to three adult plants, down from six in the original bill.
The cannabis cafes and social-use clubs that voters approved in the original bill are no longer included in this new version. The bill also allows individual Maine municipalities to "opt out" of allowing canna-businesses in their jurisdictions, but would also ensure that these towns do not get a cut of the state's cannabis tax revenue. Legislators also changed the tax structure of the bill, implementing a 10% sales tax along with a state excise tax, instead of the flat 20% rate established in the original referendum.
"We worked hard to compromise and find common ground," state Rep. Teresa Pierce, chair of the committee that drafted the bill, said to the Portland Press-Herald. "Our town officials, our local businesses, our parents and families and communities that each of us represent are all asking us to put a reasonable, highly structured regulatory system in place… They recognize the status quo just isn't what we should be doing."
On Tuesday, the House voted 112-34 to support the new bill, an overwhelming margin of support that could prevent Gov. LePage from vetoing the legislation. The bill now moves on to the state Senate for a vote, but considering that Senators approved a more liberal legalization bill last year with a veto-proof margin, chances of the bill's success in that chamber are also good. Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling told the Press-Herald that "it's a good vote margin," but "it could still change, depending on how strongly the governor feels and what the marijuana lobby does. There are no guarantees."
Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, who worked to advocate for the original legalization measure, is not in favor of the new bill. The new legislation no longer includes a limit to the amount of weed that can be grown in the state, which McCarrier said could increase competition to the extent that local cannabis farmers would go out of business, allowing "Big Tobacco" to take over the cannabis market. "We don't believe that they should be the ones to try to come in here and take this industry over," he said, according to the Bangor Daily News.
This year's bill has a greater chance of success than last year's attempt to rewrite the referendum measure. The supermajority vote gives greater protection against a veto from Gov. LePage, and even if the governor continues his efforts to derail legal cannabis, this is his last term in office. If the regulatory bill does pass, state officials would be on track to issue cannabis retail licenses next year, although stores may not be able to open their doors until 2020.
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