High Stakes: Maine's Pot Initiative Differs From Other States' in Key Ways

Sep 20, 2016

In planning a framework to allow recreational marijuana sales in Maine, the authors of Question 1 looked to Colorado for inspiration. That state's law is now two years old, and there's a baseline of information that can be gleaned from the experiment. Some of it has been copied into Maine's proposed initiative, but there are also some key differences.

As we continue our weeklong series "High Stakes: How Legalizing Pot Could Affect Maine," A.J. Higgins takes a closer look at what those differences are.

One of the most important parts of Question 1 is a section that actually gives Maine cities and towns the right to restrict or even prohibit the sale of recreational marijuana. It's a subject that's on the minds of many Maine municipal governing bodies, but few have taken the issue by the horns in the way that the city of Bangor has.

Bangor Mayor Sean Faircloth called a special workshop session of the council last month to raise some of the issues the city should be prepared to address if Maine's referendum passes.

Some councilors are anticipating additional revenue from licensing fees. Others want to make sure no one under 21 can get into the marijuana retail sales business. And councilors want to know how Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska's laws are working.

Proponents say a lot has been learned, but public health directors, such as Patty Hamilton in Bangor, say Colorado's two-year experience isn't long enough to be considered a track record.

"I feel like we've been rushed into forcing this drug policy that's rarely made by the people," she says. "It's usually made by educated professionals who have information to compare good long-term data and studies that really don't exist."

Still, proponents of Question 1 say it's designed to ensure that each community is comfortable with marijuana retail sales. That's why there are strong provisions for local control.

In Maine, a municipality can limit the number of retail operations or ban them altogether. Communities could also restrict the hours of operation and require local licensing provisions for retail pot businesses.

Geoff Hermann of the Maine Municipal Association says Question 1 gives communities considerable discretion.

"They can prohibit them altogether, they can regulate them in addition to supplementary to, and even more stringently than the state regulatory scheme," he says. "It's very strong home rule authority. It's a recognition of that. I notice that the opponents of the initiative think there's some loopholes. Frankly, as far as loopholes go, there aren't too many that I see."

Justin Bragg, manager of Mainely Glass in Bangor, with one of the many items he sells to medical marijuana users and other smokers, a Cobra water pipe.
Credit A.J. Higgins / MPBN

Justin Bragg, manager of Mainly Glass medical marijuana and loose leaf tobacco smoking supplies on Hammond Street in Bangor, says he's trying to maximize profits. He says he hopes to be able to apply for a social club license that is allowed in Maine's ballot question but overlooked in other states where recreational pot is legal.

The city of Bangor could nix the idea of a club that sells marijuana products for on-site consumption, similar to a bar, but Bragg is hoping that won't happen. He thinks it could be popular with customers.

"I think it all depends on location, but us here, we'd be more than happy to do something like that as well," Bragg says.

In addition to allowing social clubs, Maine's recreational marijuana proposal stands apart from all four other pot-legal states in another big way: how much a person can legally possess. At 2.5 ounces, Maine would allow more than twice the limit of other states, which restrict possession to no more than an ounce.

David Boyer of the pro-Question 1 group The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol says the comparatively large amount of marijuana for personal use was adopted based on Maine's history, for reasons of consistency.

"We thought 2.5 ounces made sense, and this is because that is what Maine has decriminalized already, and that's also the allowable possession amount for medical marijuana patients," Boyer said. "So we thought even though they did it that way that having it consistent for all of these — medical marijuana, decriminalization and legalization — having one number is a lot easier for Mainers and for law enforcement."

"Look, 2.5 ounces is a lot of weed. I mean it's a lot of marijuana," says Jeff Zinsmeister, who runs communications for Alexandria, Virginia-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has emerged as Question 1's leading opponent. "It's about 150 joints worth. It's a lot more than is allowed in any other state."

Zinsmeister says by permitting large amounts of marijuana to be legal for personal use, the law will encourage an underground black market. And Zinsmeister questions claims that black market activity would be lessened by the initiative's relatively low 10 percent sales tax, arguing that it's still twice as high as the state's sales tax and would create an incentive for illegal sales.

"When's the last time you went and bought something from a different store because of a 10 percent discount? It's a significant upcharge," he says.

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Zinsmeister would prefer Maine impose a higher tax on retail sales, noting that Colorado's is nearly 13 percent, Oregon's is 25 percent and Washington assigns a 37 percent point-of-sale tax.

But David Boyer says the 10 percent tax creates a sort of sweet spot, by raising $8 million for the General Fund without encouraging illicit sales.

"If it's too low, then, I mean, we need to have the funds to pay for the regulation of marijuana, to make sure that the businesses are operating and that we can make sure that they're checking IDs and all the stuff that comes with regulating an industry," Boyer says. "If we put a 50 percent sales tax, then that's just going to increase the cost of marijuana to an amount that's higher than the black market."

Maine's proposed recreational marijuana law also differs from the other four states in that it is the only one to grant regulatory authority to the state Department of Agriculture. Boyer says his group would not be opposed to dividing responsibilities with another state agency, such as the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

All of these provisions would be subject to the review of the Maine Legislature, which will have the final say in implementing the citizen initiative, if it's approved by the voters in November.

To read the rest of the series "High Stakes: How Legalizing Pot Could Affect Maine," click here.