New weed bill has Portland roots

Russell speaks at local bar about proposed bill that would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use.
Courtesy of Adam King
Russell speaks at local bar about proposed bill that would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use.

Posted on March 04, 2013 in News
By Nathan Mooney

Maine State Representative Diane Russell has authored a new bill to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana for recreational users 21 and over. Russell, representing Portland’s Munjoy Hill and Old Port neighborhoods, introduced a similar proposal in 2009 but failed to gather enough support to pass the changes to Maine’s existing marijuana policy.

Russell cited a number of reasons as impetus for the reintroduction of the bill.

“Eighty-six percent of drug arrests in Maine are for [marijuana] possession,” said Russell, citing the high state expenditures that result from prosecution and imprisonment for marijuana related offenses.

“This policy has not worked,” she said.

Russell said the state spent over $26 million in 2007 for the prosecution, law enforcement and imprisonment associated with marijuana-related offenses. She sees a big opportunity to turn some of those expenditures into revenue for the state with the introduction of a $50 per ounce flat tax on the wholesale of marijuana, in addition to the five percent sales tax it would receive when retailed. The revenue from the wholesale tax would be distributed across multiple state programs. Under Russell’s current proposal, a majority of that tax revenue would go to the state’s education fund. Smaller portions would go to drug addiction and rehabilitation programs and marijuana research.

Russell’s bill would create a unique tax structure for the sale of marijuana for recreational use, while leaving intact the current dispensary system for medical users. The bill proposes four new types of permits to license businesses involved in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana for recreational users. Permits would be issued for cultivation, retailing, research and the production of secondary marijuana products like tinctures or edibles. The research permit would only be granted to organizations without any of the other permits.

The bill would take a portion of the proposed tax revenue and create a process for research organizations to acquire funding to study marijuana’s long-term effects or other marijuana related academic endeavors. Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under federal law, which stipulates that there is no accepted medical use. That classification has made for a historically restricted study of marijuana and its effects and has established political repercussions for agencies that endeavor to do so. Russell’s bill would address this roadblock to marijuana research by creating a state-level source for research funding.

Russell had help in authoring the bill: David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project met her when he came to Maine as part of the Ron Paul campaign. Boyer joked that the joint effort with Russell did sound like the beginning of a cheesy one-liner – “A libertarian and a progressive sit down to write a bill.” A libertarian perspective would favor less taxation and government structure in general, but Boyer can see the benefits to be had by the changes to Maine law proposed in the bill.

“My rationale is that I may not love taxes, but if I can keep law-abiding adult citizens that just want to relax out of jail, that’s a net gain.”

Boyer and Russell both see a better route to create a framework for legalization and taxation now, instead of after a citizen’s initiative is passed — something Boyer’s organization plans to back in 2016 if the current bill doesn’t pass.

“Some people, myself included,” said Boyer, “think this message is more preferable to having a ballot measure and then having the legislature work out the kinks later.”

Those kinks are plentiful whether they get addressed before or after the citizens of Maine vote on the bill. Boyer said the legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs will most likely establish the finer regulations under the proposed bill since it already handles alcohol and gambling regulations.

Over the next few weeks, the bill will be assigned a legislative reference number and public hearings will be scheduled. At that point, various groups will formalize their support, or lack thereof, for the bill.

“This is my full time job, but it takes a coalition,” said Boyer, referring to his efforts to solidify support in Augusta for the bill over the coming weeks. Boyer expects that the public hearings and legislative review will be scheduled sometime in the next few weeks. There have not been many outspoken critics of the law at this point, though Boyer had a pretty good idea where a lot of the bill’s detractors would come from. “Our number one opposition is definitely going to be law enforcement.”

Support for the bill seemed to be a trend amongst University of Southern Maine students asked by The Free Press about the proposed change in Maine law. Senior psychology major Kate Wolfinger didn’t let her personal experiences with marijuana users affect her thoughts on the proposed bill.

“I wish more of my friends that use it knew how to relax without it,” she said, “but I’m very much for making your own choices.”

Freshman computer science major Justin Hayes agreed with Russell’s cause to create the foundational framework now, before a citizen’s initiative.

“It’s better to have it in the public eye, maintained and regulated through the proper legal channels.” Hayes also commented on the notion that making marijuana available through legal channels to any of-age consumer would increase its availability to minors. “Some people have a concern,” he said. “Personally, I don’t see it changing the status quo.”