AUGUSTA, Maine — If Maine is going to “free the weed,” the Legislature wants no part of the process.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate overwhelmingly affirmed on Monday that they would not pass a law to legalize, tax and regulate recreational use of marijuana. The House rejected LD 1380, a bill by longtime legalization advocate Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, that would have put the question out for a public vote. The bill was defeated 98-45.

The bill was the best and last chance for pro-pot activists to push their agenda through the Legislature this year. While the bill still faces a vote in the Senate, its death is all but assured; senators on Monday unanimously killed another pro-legalization bill, LD 1401, sponsored by another Portland Democrat, Rep. Mark Dion.

Two separate and competing pro-legalization groups are collecting signatures to put the legalization question out to statewide ballot in 2016.

Russell and Dion both said it’s only a matter of time before voters enact legalization by citizens’ initiative. The regulatory needs of legalization will be immense, and the Legislature should learn from history, they said.

Maine enacted a law to legalize medical cannabis in 1999, but the law has been amended in the Legislature and the ballot box several times since. Dion said that’s because the original law was not fleshed out enough to get the job done.

“Each and every Legislature that has sat in this chamber since then has been confronted with innumerable bills to play catchup,” Dion said. “When we have to play catchup, citizens are at risk. Their conduct is called into question, and the government enacts a high price on error.”

Russell’s bill — which would essentially treat marijuana the same way the state treats alcohol and includes a finely detailed regulatory structure for recreational pot — represented an effort to ensure that if legalization is approved by voters, it’s done in a way that won’t require lots of additional post-referendum tinkering by legislators.

“We clean up the process,” she said. “We make sure we have a clean bill to go to the people.”

Others, however, said legalization is not a foregone conclusion. Even if it were, said Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, the Legislature shouldn’t try to get in the way of citizens’ initiatives.

“We don’t know what voters will or won’t do. They change their minds,” Tuell said. “If the voters do legalize marijuana, [but the Legislature passes this bill], we’re essentially heading them off at the pass.”

Others opposed the legalization effort on principle. Rep. James Campbell, an independent from Newfield, said that the Legislature shouldn’t ask Mainers whether they want to legalize a drug that will continue to be illegal at the federal level.

“Why don’t they put a bill in to tell the people of Maine not to pay their federal taxes anymore?” he said. “What they’re doing is telling the people of Maine how to break federal law. And I think it’s disgusting.”

Four states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have legalized the use and sale of recreational marijuana. In Washington, D.C., use of the drug is legal, but its sale is not.

In 2013, a marijuana legalization effort failed in the Maine House by just a four-vote margin. Scott Gagnon, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group, said he was heartened by the growth in legislative opposition to the proposal.

“Momentum for marijuana legalization has clearly begun to wane,” he said. “We will take this momentum with us as we hit the road to continue to speak out about the public health and public safety threats posed by commercialized marijuana.”

David Boyer, campaign manager for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, one of the group’s pushing a legalization referendum in 2016, disagreed with Gagnon’s characterization of the vote.

“The Legislature’s failure to act should not be mistaken for waning public interest in marijuana policy reform. Elected officials have always followed the citizens’ lead on this issue,” Boyer said in a written statement. “Maine voters will still have the final say, and we expect they will say it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...