Maine House passes new compromise on legal marijuana sales

Lawmakers have been trying to hammer out regulations for legalized marijuana since voters chose to go legal in 2016.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers cast a pivotal vote Tuesday in favor of allowing retail marijuana sales, signaling strong support for enacting a law change approved by voters that has been held up by politics.

The Maine House of Representatives approved a new compromise with a veto-proof majority needed to keep Republican Gov. Paul LePage from killing the bill. Lawmakers have been trying to hammer out regulations for legalized marijuana since voters chose to go legal in 2016.

“This bill sends a message that the long wait for the implementation of the legalization of marijuana has been long enough,” independent Rep. Kent Ackley of Monmouth said. “My hope is that every member in this body can go home at the end of this session with the ability to tell the voters in each of our districts that we finished the job they started in November of 2016.”

The bill passed the House on Tuesday despite an uphill battle. Republican leaders who oppose legalization, in part because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, said they’re still against it.

Some pro-marijuana activists also didn’t like that it would cut the number of plants a person can grow for personal use from six to three. They also voiced concerns about a revised tax structure.

The voter-approved law created a 10 percent sales tax on retail marijuana. The new bill also would require growing facilities to pay an excise tax of $335 per pound of mature marijuana plants, as well as other new fees.

“While we had mixed feelings about the bill, we are glad the legislature is moving toward a regulated marketplace,” said David Boyer, Maine political director for Marijuana Policy Project.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that campaigned against legalization, said Tuesday that the new compromise is workable because it bans marijuana social clubs, keeps children from entering marijuana retailers and imposes stronger limits on home growing. But the group still thinks legalization is a bad idea, said its Maine chair, Scott Gagnon.

“We have been very clear that if implementation is to go forward, the bill must incorporate strong public health and safety measures to minimize the harms to youth and communities,” he said.

Tuesday’s vote showed there is political will to pass a bill that can survive a veto from LePage, who opposes legalization and has killed similar legislation in the past. Lawmakers needed a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass an override of a previous veto in November and fell well short. But Tuesday’s vote passed by a count of 112-34, which is about 77 percent.

The bill won approval from a legislative committee earlier. It now needs more rounds of votes in the House and Senate. A spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said it should be on the Senate calendar Wednesday.

The passage of the legalization by voters means it’s already legal for residents to grow and gift their own marijuana in Maine.

Whittle reported from Portland, Maine.