Panel Leaders: Commercial Pot Licensing Might Take Until Next Summer to Get Up and Running

Aug 16, 2017

Leaders of a special legislative committee implementing Maine's legal marijuana law say commercial licensing and sale of the drug is unlikely to begin until next summer.

The committee today completed drafting the regulatory framework for the voter-approved law, but those guidelines must first be finalized and adopted by the Legislature before the final rulemaking process can begin.

Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, co-chairman of the committee, is hopeful the process will move quickly.

"The sooner we get this up and running the better," Katz said. "As we've said, there's only two groups of people who should really want to see this legal market up and running quickly, and that's people who like marijuana and people who don't like marijuana. Because either it's going to be done legally, or it's going to continue in the black market," he said.

Katz is hopeful the Legislature will pass the bill as an emergency during a special session in late October. But even if that happens, the regulatory apparatus won't be in place before the Legislature-enacted moratorium on commercial sales ends Feb. 1.

Democratic state Rep. Teresa Pierce, co-chairman of the committee, is also hoping the process will move quickly.

"I think it's important and once we do our work and pass the bill and it goes into effect, that we encourage and work closely with the executive branch to work at all haste to get it up and going," Pierce said, "because the longer we go along without it being a market and ready to roll, the more the illicit market plays in the state. And really want to get away from that."

The committee agreed on a wide variety of changes to the voter-approved legal marijuana law, including a moratorium on social clubs where recreational marijuana can be consumed.

The committee is also proposing changes to the taxing of the drug, adding a 10 percent excise tax based on the weight sold from commercial growers to retailers. The excise tax would be separate from the 10 percent sales tax approved by voters that applies only to retail sales.

In addition, the committee is proposing a revenue sharing mechanism that will allow municipalities allowing commercial sales, cultivation or distribution to take a slice of the tax revenue. The proposal is designed to encourage participation in the legal market.

Several towns have already enacted local bans on commercial sales, in some cases for ideological reasons, in others because the towns have no financial incentive to participate.

Katz said the draft proposal is designed to allow local municipalities the flexibility to ban commercial sales, while giving others a reason to try it. He said the success of the legal market could depend on ensuring that commercial sales aren't only allowed in just a handful of localities.

"We do think it's important that there not be wide areas of this state where there isn't any opportunity to buy legally," he said, "so we have put in our proposal something where a percentage of the taxes that get raised are going to back to the municipalities that do allow for retail and other activities in their towns, to provide some incentive for folks to participate in the legal market," he said.

Katz and Pierce are also hopeful that the LePage administration will move quickly to create rules as soon as the Legislature enacts the bill later this fall. Gov. Paul LePage has been an opponent of recreational marijuana and campaigned against it during the citizen initiated referendum approved by voters last year.

Katz said the administration has been "disengaged" from the process so far, which he described as disappointing. He said administrations in Colorado and Washington were participants in drafting the legal framework after voters legalized marijuana in those states.

"We're hoping, now that we're approaching the end, that we'll start to get that buy-in and that there will be that same sense of urgency by the administration to do this right that I think the Legislature has now shown," he said.

Pierce agreed. She noted that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper opposed the referendum to legalize marijuana, but worked to ensure that the voter-approved law was one that works.

"He realized that once it passed that he needed to embrace it. And you do that for public safety and public health. And I really hope that when our work is done - and I think we've done good work - that the executive (LePage) will engage and have that goal in mind," she said.

The proposal will now be drafted by committee analysts before it becomes a public bill. Once that happens, the committee will hold a public hearing and work sessions in September.

This story was originally published on Aug. 15, 2017 at 2:40 p.m. ET.