What will Maine’s cannabis landscape look like once the moratorium on the recreational marketplace expires this February?
“It’s the million-dollar question,” said Mark Dion, the state Senate Democrat who’s running for Maine governor in 2018. “Or in this case, the multi-million dollar question.”
Some would argue that the law would default to the language of the original Marijuana Legalization Act, however large parts of it about authority and decision making have been allocated to the municipalities. The original language of the Marijuana Legalization Act stated that agencies would begin licensing retail marijuana facilities within nine months of the measure's certification, which was around September 2017.
Or Gov. LePage — who recently vetoed the amendment that would have set up the regulatory framework, tax rates, and requirements for the recreational market — could prompt the Legislature to vote on another round of moratoriums, delaying what Mainers passed for an even longer, indeterminate amount of time.
Either way, the future of the recreational cannabis market is uncertain.
Dion, who sat on Joint Select Committee For Marijuana Legalization Implementation this year working with legislators on the bill rewrite for seven months, said it's possible to get it passed before next year’s fall harvest.
“I am concerned because with each passing week, those individuals and groups who oppose the idea of legalization, are probably emboldened to try and severely limit the free market around cannabis,” said Dion. “We need to get this underway.”
The Legislature does not reconvene until January 3, 2018, but according to Dion, leaders in the committee have been meeting informally to strategize how they can address concerns and submit a veto-proof bill.
“We didn’t fall short of that many votes to achieve a veto override,” said Dion. “So there’s an opportunity to change some minds and push this through in the spring.”
According to Dion, the chief concerns his colleagues in the Legislature had with the bill rewrite were the use of opt in/opt-out language, and the mandate of a 20-percent excise tax.
Some stakeholders, like Paul McCarrier the president of Legalize Maine, also didn’t agree with these sections of the bill, saying the requirement that Maine municipalities would have to proactively opt-in to the measure would essentially be a “de-facto prohibition” last month.
But Dion said that the idea that each and every town would have to hold their own mini-referendum on marijuana legalization is untrue. Cannabis will still be legal to own and cultivate next year, but buying and selling it will still be illegal. As a former Cumberland County Sheriff, Dion anticipates this quasi-legal status will create some problems with law-enforcement.
“The police are going to be asking themselves, ‘what the hell do we do now?’ It’s going to create confusion in the community and there may be some cultivators that engage in unlawful trafficking,” said Dion. “They’re going to call it “gifting” but the police may be put in a position to take action in a criminal court. But the whole goal of this bill was to take marijuana issues out of the criminal court and into a market setting.”
Like many caregivers, growers, entrepreneurs, and average Mainers across the state, Dion’s anxious to get this market set up and running. He’d prefer to get the bill passed straight away and work out any kinks along the way. If Dion were elected Governor next year, he says he’d have a pretty progressive, although technically federalist, view on marijuana policy.
“States should have the latitude to engage in their own democratic experiments around public policy,” he said.
Dion’s views on marijuana have remained fairly consistent over his years serving the public. In the past, he supported both medicinal legalization and decriminalization efforts, but with over 32 years spent in law enforcement, he wasn’t always pro-recreational.
After years of observing (and in some cases initiating) the impossible task of cracking down on every discovered marijuana infraction, or as Dion put it “controlling the uncontrollable,” he started to think it wasn’t worth the time and resources, especially with the prevalence of much more dangerous drugs like opiates in Maine. Add to that the recognition that many of the people serving time or paying fines for possession of marijuana hadn’t committed any other crimes, and Dion realized that his part in the drug war made no rational sense.
“I couldn’t find myself an argument to sustain its criminality,” said Dion. “As I got older, I remembered the people I knew who smoked marijuana, and they seem to be successful individuals. My choice to drink spirits over lighting a joint, should be just that, a choice. Not an indication that I’m morally superior.”