By Marina Villeneuve
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The Maine Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would eventually allow legal marijuana sales in the state, setting the stage for lawmakers to have enough support to avert a potential veto by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
The Senate backed the new compromise legislation 24-10. The legislation had been held up by politics since Maine voters called for the legalization of retail pot sales in November 2016. Lawmakers and lobbyists have been trying to hammer out a deal ever since.
If the latest compromise becomes law, state regulators will be tasked with drawing up rules to allow pot sales likely by 2019 or 2020.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz said the bill would allow municipalities to opt-in and allow pot sales, while providing some tax revenues for law enforcement and public awareness campaigns.
“You’re deciding between two bills: this bill and the original marijuana legalization act” passed by voters, Katz said.
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.
The bill passed the House on Tuesday despite an uphill battle. Republican House Leader and gubernatorial candidate Ken Fredette opposed the legalization, in part because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
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 the revised tax structure.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that campaigned against legalization, said 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.
Republican Sen. Scott Cyrway also warned supporters that allowing retail pot sales would normalize marijuana use.
“It’s going to be on your clothes,” he said
But this week’s votes show 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 House 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 another round of legislative action in the House and Senate.
The passage of the legalization by voters means it’s already legal for residents to grow and gift their own marijuana in Maine. Supporters of the latest compromise say the legal limbo surrounding marijuana is creating a gray market that lawmakers must address.