AUGUSTA — The Maine House voted Monday to sustain Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill that would create the legal framework for retail sales of recreational marijuana.
The bill was the result of more than nine months of work by a special committee tasked with implementing the law that voters narrowly approved last November, putting Maine among the eight states and the District of Columbia that had legalized the adult use of marijuana. The 74-62 vote Monday fell 17 votes short of the two-thirds margin required to overturn LePage’s veto.
The path forward for the ballot-box law remains unclear, with the current moratorium on recreational sales expiring Feb. 1. The Legislature reconvenes in January and could pass legislation then, but it’s uncertain whether the political dynamic will change enough in the next two months for an implementation law to be passed or the moratorium to be extended. If neither occurs, the ballot box law would take effect, a prospect that some lawmakers find alarming.
“I feel like we legalized gasoline, but not gas stations,” said Rep. Martin Grohman, a Biddeford independent.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the special legislative committee that wrote the implementation bill, is unsure what the next steps will be.
“You know, 74-62 is a good victory in a basketball game, but it’s not enough to overcome a veto,” Katz said after the House vote. “We will regroup and we will sit around and try to figure out where the heck we go from here, and I hope somebody has some bright ideas because right now I don’t have any.”
Katz said the bill as passed by the 17-member Special Committee on Marijuana Implementation, which remains an active committee, was crafted with the state’s voters in mind.
“We recognize that almost half the people of the state of Maine voted against this,” Katz said. “So at every turn we made a conscious effort to keep this bill as conservative as possible.”
Among its provisions, the bill required those licensed to sell recreational marijuana to be Maine residents and mandated that companies set up to produce commercial marijuana have majority Maine ownership; prohibited sales via the internet or at drive-thru windows; and set up a tax structure that included money to increase the number of drug recognition officers in Maine law enforcement, an effort meant to prevent and prosecute illegal impaired driving.
By failing to pass legislation, “we are driving people to the illegal dealer on the street corner,” Katz said.
Although Maine was among the first states to pass a medical marijuana law, the drug remains illegal at the federal level, a key reason that LePage cited in vetoing the recreational regulation measure, which passed the Legislature in October with bipartisan support.
In his veto letter, LePage also said the bill sets unrealistic time lines for launching the market, fails to address shortcomings in the medical marijuana program, creates a confusing regulatory system, and might not generate enough tax revenue to cover the cost of market implementation or regulation. In short, he dismissed the bill as a risky, inconsistent, expensive rush job.
While campaigning for re-election in 2014, LePage said that if voters approved legal marijuana he would support that decision. But he backed away from that in his veto letter, writing, “Until I clearly understand how the federal government intends to treat states that seek to legalize marijuana, I cannot in good conscience support any scheme in state law to implement expansion of legal marijuana in Maine.”
MORATORIUM EXTENSION FAILS
In a floor speech Monday, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, a key LePage ally in the Legislature, said that regardless of the outcome of the override vote, it was unlikely that retail sales of recreational marijuana would have begun before the moratorium expires Feb.1. He called on lawmakers to extend the moratorium, to provide time for the administration to do the rulemaking that establishes details of retail licensing and a tax regime. Fredette suggested that the Legislature try to move on that extension Monday, but Democratic leadership rejected that proposal, deciding to allow the issue to wait until January.
“This vote today to sustain this veto is really a vote to have us maybe even work informally over the next 60 days, but really to come back in 60 days and have it positioned in here where those issues can be addressed in a timely fashion and a fairly short fashion and we can pass something that we can have a consensus on this really important issue,” Fredette said.
He also said one important issue for his caucus was extending the moratorium.
“There is no way rulemaking is going to be done in time for a Feb. 1 date,” he said.
But those backing the legalization bill are concerned that the lack of action is creating conditions that will allow the illegal market to take root and expand.
“I think if we don’t act and move we are going to continue to create profits and incentives for the wrong people,” said Grohman, the Biddeford independent. “The kind of profits and incentives that we very much do not want to create in these times.”
Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff and 2018 gubernatorial candidate, also was among those backing the legalization bill.
“The governor’s veto is the latest in a long line of setbacks, but we remain closer than ever before to enacting reasonable drug policy reforms to end the system of black-market profits and needless incarceration,” Dion said. “We will continue do our work, knowing the people of Maine are on our side. It’s only a matter of time before the voters’ will is fulfilled.”
INVESTORS MAY GO ELSEWHERE
Current law makes it legal for adults to use and possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, or grow up to six plants of their own, but does not allow commercial production of marijuana or retail sales. It also repeals previous state law that prevented marijuana from being given away or used as a promotional item.
It is estimated that a recreational marijuana industry in Maine could generate as much a $325 million a year in revenue.
Hannah King, a member of the advisory board of directors for Maine Professionals Regulating Marijuana, said that even with a moratorium on recreational sales and commercial production, other provisions in the underlying ballot law would remain in place. King also noted the now-failed regulatory bill included provisions that required those who want to invest in Maine’s adult-use market to partner with a Maine-based firm.
She said investors are waiting for Maine to finalize its market, but without a time line for a legal framework and with a half-dozen other states – including those with much larger markets, such as Massachusetts and California – either legalizing medical marijuana or extending legalization to recreational use, those investors will not wait long before looking elsewhere.
The delay, she said, will undoubtedly cost millions of dollars in investment that simply will not happen in Maine.
“This was our chance to do our job, to protect the people of Maine and create this new industry,” Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, the House chair of the implementation committee, said in a prepared statement that followed the vote. “I’m deeply disappointed that this legislation, which was written after six months of work by Democratic, Republican and independent lawmakers, was successfully derailed by a small group of people.”
Pierce urged voters to let their lawmakers know how the felt about the issue before the Legislature returns in January.