Marijuana Legalization in Maine

Although it has been more than a year since marijuana possession and retail sale were legalized by a state-wide referendum, retail sale is still not allowed. This presents one of the most difficult issues facing the legislature in the upcoming session. Current law makes it legal for adults to use and possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, or grow up to six plants of their own, but it does not allow commercial production, retail sales, or individual sales. Additionally, many cities, including Biddeford, have passed ordinances delaying the retail sale of marijuana.

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. It is labeled a Schedule One Drug, in the same category as heroin. Many counselors involved with the substance use disorder community are strongly opposed to wider availability.  On the other hand, many of the most passionate voices for legalization note that marijuana tinctures and creams help relieve symptoms of serious ailments and help address chronic pain, an important issue.

The campaign that placed the initiative on the ballot was called, “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.”  It sounds simple, but it’s a remarkably tall order. To implement retail sales, the legislature convened a special committee to consider all of the issues created at point of sale. Marijuana is not a single product. It is an ingredient which can be formulated into a dizzying array of edible, drink-able, or smoke-able products. How to regulate those products in all their forms is a significant challenge with significant costs.  Trained personnel, with specialized equipment, will be needed to inspect retail locations.

Here are some of the hypothetical questions the state might ask a new shop owner applying for a business license on the website. What special certifications or licenses do you carry?  What hours will the store be open?  How will it be staffed?  Will all the employees be over 21 years old?  What type of training do you provide to employees? What type of security is in place to prevent theft?  Do you have a banking relationship?  How will you track deliveries to the source?  Do you have a hotline number for unusual reactions? How will you label the strength of each product, and measure that strength across products?

Although marijuana legalization has been presented as an economic bonanza, it is entirely possible that the costs of regulating retail sales will outweigh any tax proceeds for several years.  In order to keep buyers safe and make sure the products are accurately labeled, a product testing lab will be needed. There will be additional costs at the municipal level as well, for additional policing, inspections, and violation enforcement. The State of Maine simply cannot afford to lose money on marijuana legalization.

But we must act. Without properly licensed marijuana growers, manufacturers and retailers, the Maine retail marijuana market will continue to operate, unregulated and underground.  We don’t want the illicit market to flourish. And we put our police officers in an impossible situation when our rules and regulations are not clear.

It’s as if voters have legalized gasoline, but not gas stations. Lawmakers now need to develop sensible rules to create a safe, well-regulated marijuana market.

The legislature is in the process of putting these thoughts and concerns into a new bill which I hope we can move forward quickly. I welcome your thoughts and feedback on how best to go forward.