Maine lawmakers continue to stumble on path to legal marijuana

Good morning from Augusta, where Maine’s second attempt to set up a regulatory system for recreational marijuana will likely get a vote in the Legislature today, but it’s looking as if it could have some of the same problems that the first one had.

Legislators may have done all that they could to get a regulatory system up and running.  Maine narrowly voted to legalize recreational pot in 2016, but the Legislature hasn’t been able to come up with a system to put that vote into action. After months of work last year, a bill died after the House sustained a veto from Gov. Paul LePage with most Republicans against the bill.

So, a special legislative committee on marijuana went back and produced a new bill with changes that Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said are designed to pull more support. It gives Maine residents a priority for recreational licenses and puts the Department of Administrative and Financial Services in charge of Maine’s recreational and medical marijuana systems.

The bill got a 16-1 vote in the committee, with only Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, opposed. Backers, including Katz and the committee’s co-chair, Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, say that the bill is the best possible legislative solution to clear up a gray marijuana market — where it’s legal to have recreational marijuana, but not to sell it.

Katz called it “critical that we get this passed so we can clear up the chaos that exists out there.” Pierce said it “protects our local communities.”

But the bill is being opposed by a top Republican and advocates for small marijuana producers who wrote the citizen-initiated law. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law and that’s the argument LePage used last week when he vetoed another bill that would have allowed Maine credit unions to administer accounts for marijuana businesses. That veto was sustained Monday in the Senate on a 19-14 vote.

Rob Poindexter, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Tuesday that Fredette opposes the new law because marijuana remains federally illegal, though he said that’s “no knock” on the committee, which he said did the best job it could.

It’s also facing opposition from Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine, a group of medical marijuana caregivers that wrote the referendum that passed in 2016. Legislators have tossed out a cap on commercial production of marijuana that was favored by McCarrier’s group.

And McCarrier told WVOM that the new proposed law would pave the way for “Big Tobacco” to control Maine’s marijuana market because it wouldn’t place a statewide limit on cultivation facilities. Backers of the bill see preservationist motives from some caregivers.

Traditional Republican opposition is the thing to watch as the bill approaches a vote. But opposition from marijuana activists is certainly a problem. Will it sink the bill? We’ll see.

CorrectionRep. Teresa Pierce is from Falmouth, not Yarmouth. It was a reporter’s error.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates to debate tonight

WGME and the Bangor Daily News are hosting the seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates tonight in Portland. All of the Democrats seeking to replace LePage in 2018 are confirmed for tonight’s debate, which will be co-moderated by WGME’s Gregg Lagerquist and the Daily Brief’s Chris Cousins. It will stream live on the websites of WGME and the BDN from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Here’s our recap of last week’s Republican debate.

LePage names new legal adviser

The governor has named John H. Doyle as his deputy legal counsel and senior policy adviser on public safety issues. Doyle comes to Maine from Virginia, where he worked for that state’s attorney general and for a large law firm practicing corporate and securities law, according to a news release. Doyle, who lives on a family farm in West Baldwin, began in his new position April 2.

Lots of talk but no vote on funding Medicaid expansion

Lawmakers heard hours of testimony Monday — adding to untold hours they’ve already spent on the subject in recent years — about Medicaid expansion under the provisions of the Obama-era Affordable Care Act. The Appropriations Committee hearing focused on the administrative costs of Medicaid expansion — for things like equipment and software — as well as new employees in the Department of Health and Human Services who will process what is expected to be 70,000 or more new enrollees who will be eligible for taxpayer-funded health care in July.

Committee votes on the issue could come today. The hearing was the second in a week that tried to pin down the overall costs of expansion in the build-up to what is sure to be a mostly partisan funding showdown over expansion in the next couple of weeks.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are in this morning, and legislative leaders warned Monday to expect double sessions. Meanwhile, committees appear to be wrapping up most of their work — except for new bills from LePage. One such bill, which would allow minors to work in family businesses without a work permit, appears newly minted on today’s House calendar. It’s an issue LePage has advocated for dating back years. In addition to the House calendar, you can check out the Senate calendar by clicking here.

Also coming to the House and Senate soon are two new vetoes signed by LePage on Monday. They are LD 1414, which involves in-person visits at county jails, and LD 1795, which contains a number of changes to Maine law regarding marijuana use that were recommended by the Maine Criminal Law Advisory Commission.

Reading list

  • A judge has reiterated that the courts won’t order the LePage administration to fully reopen Downeast Correctional Facility. Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy has rejected an appeal by plaintiffs in a case to bring the Machiasport facility back to staffing and inmate counts that existed before the LePage administration closed it in February. However, she ruled that employees and the community were damaged by the illegal closure, which could provide room for civil lawsuits in the future.
  • Lawmakers are considering changing Maine’s proficiency-based high school graduation requirements. Under consideration are bills to change, delay or repeal the move toward proficiency-based diplomas, which were passed into law six years ago. This year’s freshmen would be the first to be held to the standard, which requires demonstrated proficiency in eight content areas. Opponents argue that the diplomas would be too hard to attain for some students.
  • Lawmakers have rejected another attempt at legalizing tribal operation of gaming facilities in Maine. The House voted 73-67 Monday against an order by Rep. Henry Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians that would have asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to rule on whether Maine’s tribes should have the authority to create gaming facilities. It was the latest in a long streak of defeats for Maine’s tribes on this issue.
  • The University of Maine will introduce its new president this morning. The university system’s board last month picked a candidate from three finalists, then Chancellor James Page negotiated a contract with that person, who will be introduced at the Orono campus this morning. Stay tuned to the BDN at 10 a.m. for the announcement. The university also scored some Alfond family money to make it easier to recruit and retain campus leaders.

The toughest question I’ve ever been asked

Yesterday, I was invited to Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, where I talked to a small journalism class about reporting at the invitation of a teacher (with whom I’m in a deeply involved fantasy baseball league in which I’m the defending champion).

Most of the questions were about journalism, of course. But one girl asked a more searing question: “If you were a rapper, what would your name be?” I promised to answer in today’s Daily Brief.

I am not a rapper. On a recent trip to New York City, where my girlfriend lives, a man walking by me while waiting for the subway called me a “square” without provocation. Another girl in yesterday’s class thought I was 32 years old (I’m 27) by the way I held my coffee.

When I got to the BDN’s office, I asked our top editor, Dan Macleod, what he thought. After reading yesterday’s Daily Brief about an arcane government audit, he suggested “MC Weedy.”

But “MC” is too old-school, so I’m going with “Young Weedy” because that prefix is more popular on SoundCloud. Here’s my soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this 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.

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.