Maine’s already twisted path to legalized pot just got hazier

Good morning from Augusta, where the news doesn’t stop for a snowstorm. Though the State House was snowbound, national events churned Maine’s political waters.

Namely, President Donald Trump’s attorney general did what he has been threatening to do for months: End an Obama-era stance of tolerance for recreational marijuana, sort of. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a memo circulated Thursday, didn’t exactly announce a federal crackdown, but said he would allow federal prosecutors to decide how aggressively to enforce federal law where state law regarding marijuana is at odds.

One of those places is Maine. Voters legalized recreational use of marijuana here in 2016, but the system for selling, taxing and regulating it is still under development. A bill deliberated by a special legislative committee for most of most of 2017 died in October after a veto by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Lawmakers have scrambled since then to put together new legislation that addresses some of LePage’s and opponents’ objections: Mainly moving oversight of the system to another state agency and reallocating where the tax revenue goes. At 9:30 a.m. today, the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee is scheduled to convene in Augusta for a public hearing on the new bill.

However, that process just became even more complicated. Now that Sessions has opened the door to possible federal law enforcement action in states where marijuana is legal, an old argument against legalization has become fresh again: Maine and Mainers could suffer if we move forward with state laws that conflict with federal guidelines. It’s a powerful argument in the chambers of the State House, where it has been used most recently as a reason not to expand Medicaid as long as the fate of the federal Affordable Care Act is in question. It’s also one that LePage has often cited among his list of questions about how to implement the voter-approved law. When he vetoed the pot sales law, he said he was awaiting further guidance from the federal government. 

Maine’s federal prosecutor was wishy washy about what he’d do. U.S. Attorney for Maine Halsey Frank said in a statement late Thursday that he needed to consult with staff to “evaluate how it will impact our charging decisions in Maine,” though he’d follow “long-established principles to prosecute federal crime.” This isn’t Frank’s first public statement about marijuana. In a 2013 column for the Forecaster when Frank was assistant U.S. attorney, he wrote “where there is a conflict between state and federal law, federal law prevails.” But he said in Thursday’s statement that those opinions were personal and his job is to implement Department of Justice policies.

Maine lawmakers vowed to move forward with implementation. Though there is bound to be disagreement, Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, who co-chairs the marijuana law implementation committee, said Thursday that Maine voters spoke clearly when they voted — albeit by a very slim margin — to legalize pot and the Legislature’s responsibility is to implement a carefully crafted and responsible law.

“There’s always the swirling around of what’s going on at the federal level,” Pierce said. “The best thing we can do is to do the work that we need to do to control our own state.”

Today’s hearing, if it isn’t delayed because of Thursday’s storm, can be streamed live starting at around 9:30 a.m. by clicking here.

Angus King stops short of using the word “treason”

Asked by a CNN host whether Donald Trump Jr.’s alleged collusion with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign was treasonous, King refused to take the bait. However, he did agree with explosive allegations in a yet-to-be released book about President Trump’s transition into power that the ongoing probe by special counsel Robert Mueller is more about money laundering than elections. King said the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which he is a member, isn’t so interested in money laundering as it whether and to what extent the Russians actively tried to sway the U.S. presidential election.

Can cocoa be anything but hot?

When it gets cold like this, my wife often asks me if I want a cup of hot cocoa.

Being a pedantic editor, I usually respond by asking if there is any other kind of cocoa. Can you have cold cocoa? Isn’t that just chocolate milk?

She usually just walks away and makes cocoa for herself. I crack a beer. Here is her soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.