State lawmakers had to jump through numerous political hurdles to get to where we’re at today, a time where recreational marijuana is finally legal in Maine.
After clashing with House Republicans in staunch opposition to legalization, and enduring a recount effort (that was eventually ditched) and a marijuana smear campaign led by Governor Paul LePage, proponents of legal weed won a major, albeit slim, victory. But the battle’s far from over, as recent events have shaken the newly legal marijuana landscape with a storm of chaos and confusion.
Last week, just before Question 1 kicked into effect on Monday, lawmakers gathered to pass a bill (LD 88) that would amend parts of the Marijuana Legalization Act that they felt crucially needed clarity. Months ago, Attorney General Janet Mills raised concerns over the language of the bill, saying that it was ambiguous enough to allow minors to smoke, and people to drive under the influence. Technically, it did.
The amendment sought to clarify that possession of marijuana by a juvenile (who isn’t a registered patient) is a crime, and prohibits the possession or sale of retail marijuana products until February 1, 2018, an extra three months past the date in the original bill. The Legislature passed the amendment unanimously.
But LePage threw a wrench in the gears last week when he told reporters that he wouldn’t sign the amendment until lawmakers “fix it.” LePage’s main beef with House lawmakers is over which agency should get licensing authority over the marijuana market. LePage pushed for the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations and a provision of $1.6 million in funding to the bureau, money he argued could be used to hire experts from other legal marijuana states to help with the implementation process. (Instead, the regulatory agency poised to take over licensing will be the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.)
"I will sign this bill as soon as I have direction that we can have the money and the resources to start writing the rules," LePage told reporters.
House Democratic leaders and Senate Republican leaders said that those rules could be worked out in the coming weeks by a newly formed legislative committee specifically tasked to come up with solid marijuana policy.
However, LePage said he doesn’t trust them. Though LePage reversed course a day later and signed LD 88 into law, closing the potentially dangerous loopholes with minors and vehicles, he also pledged to his use his executive power to move licensing authority from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage and Lottery Operations (BABLO), citing concerns that the Department of Agriculture might lose its federal funding if it regulates recreational marijuana.
“Because I do not trust [Democratic House] Speaker Sara Gideon will approve my language in the bill she submitted in her own name, I will issue an executive order delegating oversight of marijuana from ACF to BABLO,” LePage said in a statement posted on Facebook. “However, no rules will be promulgated until the Legislature allocates money to fund the rulemaking process. I sign this bill today to protect Maine children from the dangers of marijuana.”
All in all, the political wrangling and propaganda campaigns launched by the Governor concerning recreational marijuana these past few months have resulted in a lot of ambiguity over what's exactly legal.
That's why, here at The Phoenix, we’ve waded out into the legislative weeds, mined some nuggets of info and created this guide to Maine’s marijuana legalization act. We’ve also included a smattering of opinions from Portlanders just before legalization took effect, to provide some color and context. We hope it makes things less hazy.
So it’s really legal?
Yup, the time many have awaited is here: Mainers can now use possess and transport up to 2.5 oz. of prepared herb.
In addition to that, Mainers can possess, grow, cultivate, process and transport up to six flowering plants, 12 immature plants, and unlimited seedlings. They just must tag every plant with their name, ID number, and possess all marijuana produced by those plants at their residence.
Technically, under this new law, the only way to legally acquire marijuana is by growing it yourself, so perhaps it’s time to suddenly get interested in horticulture. (If so, check out our column “Homegrown In Maine,” for yield-increasing tips and tricks.)
What’s the legal definition of marijuana anyway?
The words cannabis and marijuana are interchangeable. All parts of the marijuana plant are now legal, including the seeds, stems, flowers, buds, resins, and any compound, derivative or mixture of the plant.
Who gets to smoke?
If you agree with President Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, then bad people get to smoke. Last year he was quoted as saying “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” So yeah, all bad people, 21 and over, are legally allowed to smoke marijuana in Maine.
Can I smoke outside?
You can only smoke, vape or otherwise consume marijuana in a “non-public space.” So no, much like you can’t drink a beer walking down Congress Street, you can’t rip a joint either — though both activities seem to happen there anyway.
Use of marijuana is restricted under the new law to private residences with the owner's permission.
What about inside my home?
Feel free to smoke marijuana inside your own home, with the decreased sense of anxiety and paranoia that legality brings.
However, if you rent property, you must get permission (like with cigarettes) to smoke inside. Consumption of edibles inside a rented property is also up to the landlord.
On my porch?
Well, a porch is technically a non-public space, so feel free to toke away on it and let that skunkiness waft through the neighborhood. Just remember, if you’re at a rented property, or someone else’s private residence to ask for permission first.
Can I be high in public?
If you’re not, or haven’t been already, go right ahead.
However, we don’t recommend going into work stoned, because much like clocking in drunk, it could likely be the only evidence your employer needs to terminate you. Your boss can still enact their own workplace policies. Thankfully, the new law made sure to include that an employer cannot penalize a person for choosing to smoke marijuana in their own home.
Will it be easier for children to access marijuana?
This question’s tricky. Some say yes, and some say no. LePage sticks with his convictions that marijuana is a dangerous gateway drug, and legalization encourages usage among minors.
Last October, during the campaign, LePage evoked reefer-madness-esque propaganda in a video message to voters where he claimed that marijuana is deadly and makes people three times as likely to use opioids.
“We do not need to legalize another drug that could lead to more deaths,” LePage said in the video. “THC levels in marijuana snacks are so high they could kill children and pets. Children can’t tell if there is weed in these snacks.”
Others are concerned that these edibles — which often appear exactly like popular children’s treats like brownies, cookies, gummy bears and lollipops — will inadvertently be consumed by minors.
The Portland-based columnist Barbara Sullivan wrote about this concern in a recent piece for The Kennebec Journal. In it, she urged parents to talk to their children about marijuana, and educate themselves on the potency and delivery system of the drug.
“The better armed they are with this information, the more tools they have to navigate the road of risk that marijuana presents to their teenage brains and bodies,” wrote Sullivan.
The simple scientific fact is that no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, but there are studies that observe negative cognitive effects the drug can have on a young person’s brain. This study out of the California Society of Addiction Medicine argued that marijuana use in children can hinder their brain development and motor functions, affect their emotions and memory, and potentially shackle them with a dependency to the drug.
Scott M. Gagnon, an expert in addiction prevention and chair of the Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities coalition, also echoed concerns about the “significant and immediate risks” marijuana poses to Maine’s youth in a recent op-ed in The Bangor Daily News. He supports the approved moratorium because he believes Maine needs more time to address “public health risks.”
“Edibles pose one of the biggest risks to our youth; it is imperative we have everything in place possible to minimize harms,” wrote Gagnon. “This isn’t something we can do overnight.”
In the letter, Gagnon also cited a study from the journal JAMA Pediatrics that found that exposure to marijuana in young children rose to 150 percent when retail sales of the drug began in Colorado.
However people like David Boyer, one of the driving forces of the Marijuana Legalization Act, firmly believes that ending the prohibition and regulating the plant will decrease the access minors have to marijuana. Once retail marijuana products like edibles are sold, IDs will be checked at the counter. The new law requires edibles to be stamped with warning labels, a universal symbol, and its THC potency, with the idea being that adults will easily be able to differentiate between a normal treat and a marijuana edible and keep it out of the hands of minors.
“We’re not sure that it needed to be clarified more [in the original bill], but we’re happy to clarify; marijuana is only legal for those 21 and up,” said Boyer, who’s also the political director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Project, on the LD 88 amendment. “We hope that parents are talking to their kids about marijuana.”
David Boyer addressed the crowd at the Portland Phoenix's "End of Prohibition" party celebrating the victory of marijuana legalization, but also highlighting some political challenges that lie ahead.
Boyer said his primary goal is eliminating the black market, where kids and adults alike currently buy their recreational marijuana. He said he’s disappointed that the Legislature voted to delay retail sales for another three months because that will keep the black market open as the only source for recreational marijuana for longer. According to him, the choices that the regulatory agency and the new legislative committee on marijuana make down the road are important, because they too will affect the black market. For example, Boyer opposes a marijuana tax in the 30 to 40 percent range, or a limit on the number of stores that can open in the state — moves he feels would further encourage the black market.
Bob Mentzinger, a political activist and supporter of Question 1 from Unity, agrees, saying that children already possess marijuana under criminalization. He did, however, have problems with the amendment that passed last week, because he believes nothing is gained from delaying the whole process, and views the concern about marijuana being legal for minors a moot point, because the original bill explicitly stated numerous times that that wouldn’t the case.
“We’re going to see kids have less access to it, not more,” said Mentzinger. “I think the push to change the language of the bill was a political cover by people who don’t want to get this thing off the ground.”
Can I sell my marijuana?
Nope. You’re prohibited from selling any amount of marijuana or derivative of the plants, but you’re free to gift up to 2.5 ounces and six immature plants, to anybody of legal age.
What’s the regulatory agency?
For now, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is in charge of regulating the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of marijuana. This includes limiting the total amount of weed cultivated for recreational sales.
LePage has said that he will fight for the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations to have the licensing authority since much of the infrastructure for policy is laid out with current laws concerning alcohol. He’s also worried that with the new administration in Washington, federal funds to the Department of Agriculture might be cut if they’re used to regulate marijuana.
When can I expect retail stores and “pot cafes?”
Not anytime soon. Because while it’s now legal to smoke, grow and possess, there’s no legal way to buy marijuana in Maine.
After lawmakers scrambled to pass the LD 88 amendment, the earliest that marijuana entrepreneurs can open up pot cafes, stores, and social clubs is February 2018. Establishing the framework and regulatory practices of a recreational marijuana market takes a lot of work, and officials here in Maine need over a year to work out the kinks.
Colorado took 13 months to set up its recreational market. It seems to be working fine for them. The state saw over $135 million in tax revenue from their legal marijuana industry last year, and for the most part, that money went to fund education for youth and law enforcement on the drug.
Will legal cannabis help Maine’s economy?
Of course it will! That is, as long as LePage doesn’t fight legislative efforts to fund regulation.
The new law proposes a 10 percent tax on retail sales of marijuana products — which is low compared to the other states that have legalized recreational marijuana and tax it between 25 and 37 percent.
According to the bill, all the revenue from the marijuana market will be dumped into Maine’s General Fund, but can’t be used to directly fund new programs. It can, however, be used to train law enforcement personnel on the rules and laws concerning retail and recreational marijuana.
Although it’s not clear yet what it will be used for, Maine can certainly expect some extra coins in its coffers come next year. According to a review from the Maine Office of Fiscal Programs, the revenue from the recreational market taxes could be up to $10.8 million a year.
Bob Mentzinger from Unity sees this an extraordinary “cash crop” opportunity for Maine.
“Maine’s in a sweet spot, we’re an agricultural state, and we’ve been growing and trafficking marijuana for decades, if not centuries already,” said Mentzinger. “This will be an economic boon for Maine. We’ll see more jobs and more money. And Maine needs that right now.”
How will recreational marijuana affect medical marijuana?
This is a question that new legislative Cannabis Advisory Commission will be grappling with in the coming months.
But on paper currently, the Marijuana Legalization Act “may not be construed to limit any privileges or rights of a qualifying patient, primary caregiver, or registered dispensary.”
So it’s business as usual for Maine’s medical marijuana community. Advocates for medical marijuana caregivers say that there needs to be a distinct medical market, so specific strains are available to patients that need them for certain ailments.
Can I go on a burn cruise?
Absolutely not. One of the biggest pushes for passing the LD 88 amendment was to clarify that drivers and passengers may not consume or be under the effects of marijuana in a moving vehicle.
“You can’t drive down the road with a beer in your hand,” said Boyer. “So you can’t drive with a joint in your hand either.”
Law enforcement in Maine still needs to develop standards to determine if drivers are impaired, beyond just field tests. They say they need a consensus on what the THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana) blood level limit should be. Lawmakers in Maine attempted to pass a bill last year that would set the legal limit of marijuana intoxication at 5 nanograms of THC per 100 milliliters of blood. But there’s mixed research out there concerning the effect marijuana has on driving, because the height of intoxication does not happen at the same time that THC levels in the blood peak. Last year, the safety foundation of AAA released a study that said that there’s no reliable way to determine impairment by a blood-test threshold.
And as of right now, there’s no clear, simple way for police to check if drivers are too stoned to drive. This might make future DUI cases quite tricky. So if you must partake in that classic Maine pastime of burn-cruising, we advise you keep some eye-drops and Ozium in your glove compartment to help act your way out of trouble.
Or, you could just not drive high. Even if the worst thing you’ve done driving stoned is stop at a green light.
Can I still get in trouble with the feds?
Here’s the craziest part: yes you can. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug — the same category as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Now, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be arrested by the feds while smoking legal marijuana in Maine, there are problems that can still arise with this disconnect in policy between country and state. For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a federal agency, explicitly states that legal marijuana users can’t buy guns, citing the risk of “irrational or unpredictable behavior,” and lying on your application is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
What will the future look like?
The work, and headaches and squabbles that come with it, around marijuana policy are just beginning.
Marijuana users won the right to own and consume legally, but there’s a long road ahead in terms of designing smart policy and regulatory market practices, that simultaneously minimizes health risks, makes Maine money and doesn’t infringe upon citizens rights.
While it’s likely that pro-marijuana lawmakers will battle it out with Republicans and LePage if they attempt to dismantle Question 1, and/or make it harder for the recreational market’s regulatory agency to secure funding, they will also have to make decisions on a myriad of marijuana-related measures. Among the issues that need to ironed out: the process of applying for a retail marijuana business, how police will test for marijuana intoxication, which towns are marijuana shops allowed in, gun ownership and marijuana usage, what’s the nitty-gritty of the rules surrounding cultivation, how to minimize access to minors, what standards will marijuana businesses be tested by, who will regulate them, and what will be done with the tax profits.
Mike Sylvester, who represents District 39 of Portland in Maine’s House of Representatives, said that ultimately the question of criminality was what the majority of people who voted yes on Question 1 cared about, so Mainers should consider the future of its fellow citizens languishing in jail over marijuana charges.
“Will we extend our new sense of justice retroactively?,” said Sylvester. “That is a bigger question for me then what the package of a brownie will look like.”
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