Of the four states to legalize cannabis for recreational use during the November 2016 general election, two were on the east coast. Even so, east coast recreational pot has yet to roll out even though both California and Nevada, the two west coast states to legalize for personal use in the same election, have seen the launch of their recreational sales come and go. It turns out that voting to legalize cannabis isn’t even half the battle. As a closer look at Maine reveals, voters only have the power to make their will apparent. It is up to the holders of public office to bend to that will—or to oppose it.
November 2016—The Referendum Passes
It wasn’t easy getting the ultimately successful cannabis referendum on the ballot. Maine’s Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap originally invalidated the legalization referendum based on what his office considered a notary’s inconsistent signature.
In order for the referendum to make it to the ballot, it needed to be signed by at least 61,123 Maine voters. Each of those signatures required notarization. Apparently, Stavros Mendros, the notary in question, provided a signature that didn’t match the signature Dunlap’s office had on file. Consequently, Dunlap invalidated 17,000 of the signatures the proposed referendum received.
Under the leadership of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), advocates of legalization appealed the Secretary’s decision in court. Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy overruled Dunlap’s decision, and Dunlap chose not to appeal that ruling, paving the way for the referendum to make it on the ballot.
In a close race, Maine’s Marijuana Legalization Act was approved by 50.3 percent of voters and disapproved by 48.7 percent on November 8, 2016. The language of the referendum authorized adults to grow up to 6 mature plants or 12 immature plants and to possess up to two and a half ounces of flower. The measure also authorized the licensing and operation of commercial cannabis producers and retailers. Recreational cannabis would be taxed 10 percent. Local governments would have the right to limit or prohibit cannabis businesses. The law was meant to take effect 30 days after its passage, and regulations were set to be established by August 8, 2017.
Anti-Cannabis Governor Paul LePage Accepts the Will of the Voters
On December 31, 2016, the vocally anti-pot Governor LePage finally signed a proclamation authorizing the advancement of legal recreational weed. The half-hearted document put the entire legal basis of the legalization efforts in question, however, by saying
“the governor maintains strong concerns regarding the integrity of Maine’s ballot and accuracy of Maine’s election results and cannot attest to the accuracy of the tabulation certified by the Secretary of State.”
This provocative statement was made after the recount campaign had already disbanded on December 17 once it was determined that the referendum had passed by 4,073 votes. It wasn’t a particularly shocking sentiment from the governor given this statement he made following election day:
“Legalizing marijuana goes against federal law, and the question was so poorly drafted, it will require millions of dollars and several legislative fixes before it can be implemented.”
On January 30, 2017, the law finally took effect. Since regulations were not yet written and there was no commercial industry in place, all that meant was that adults aged 21 and over could consume cannabis on a private residence, possess up to two and a half ounces of it, grow it, and give it to another legally aged adult without facing state criminal prosecution. Public consumption could result in a $100 fine, and, as with alcohol, it remained illegal to smoke and drive. At that time, optimistic people thought retail stores would be up and running by February 2018, a date that already delayed the original launch proposed by the referendum.
A Delay and Two Vetoes Later, the Sale of Cannabis is Legalized
In October 2017, almost a year after Maine voters had approved of legal recreational weed, the state’s legislative committee tasked with cannabis implementation was still working on a re-write of the referendum. The re-write included a delay that would push sales back to 2019.
Just before the legislature was set to consider the re-write, Governor LePage proposed a bill of his own that would simply delay sales until 2019. The purpose of the governor’s proposal was to prevent the legislature from actually voting on real cannabis legislation.
Despite the Governor’s proposal, the legislature passed the re-write of the referendum, officially called the “Act to Amend the Marijuana Legalization Act.”
In a move that surprised no one, LePage promptly vetoed the bill days after it was passed. LePage explained the decision in a letter to the legislature. He cited the bill’s conflict with federal law and its compatibility issues with Maine’s existing medical marijuana laws as reasons for his veto.
Because Maine’s House failed to deliver a two-thirds vote overriding the governor’s veto, lawmakers were sent back to the drawing board. LePage expressed concern that the Trump administration would not support Maine’s regulation of recreational weed in an additional attempt to dissuade Maine’s legislature from executing the will of the voters.
At this point, it had officially been a year since voters approved of recreational sales, and it was now clear that there was no chance that regulations would be implemented by February 2018.
Lawmakers tried again. In April 2018, they passed another bill regulating the retail sale of cannabis. And once again, LePage vetoed it. This time, LePage said that the bill made it possible for consumers to use medical marijuana rules to avoid paying certain fees. This time, the legislature overrode LePage’s veto. On May 2, 2018, a year and a half after voters approved of recreational sales, that legalization was finally reflected by legislation despite the governor’s numerous attempts to stop it from moving forward.
Of course, the passage of the law is just another step in the direction toward actual sales. Potential producers and retailers still need to apply and receive licensure. Furthermore, the new law is not quite what constituents voted for in November 2016. While the referendum authorized cannabis social clubs and the growth of up to 6 plants, the new law bans those clubs and cuts the number of homegrown plants to three.
Maine’s route to legalization is a reminder that even in states where cannabis has been legalized, the need for political advocacy remains.