Now that lawmakers have given themselves more time to revise regulations on the sale of marijuana in Maine, they should focus on two questions: Which state agencies should craft and enforce the regulations for cultivation and sale of marijuana? And where will the funding come from to pay for this oversight and other state responsibilities related to the new law legalizing the use and sale of marijuana for recreational purposes?
A referendum approved by Maine voters in November called for the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to write the new rules needed to regulate the sale of marijuana. Gov. Paul LePage, at the last minute, suggested that the Bureau of Alcohol Beverages and Lottery Operations would be better suited to this task.
He may be right, but lawmakers are right to want to fully consider this change, including allowing the public to weigh in. The Department of Health and Human Services oversees the state’s medical marijuana program, so it should be involved in the rulemaking, and perhaps oversight, process as well. The Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services particularly should not be overlooked.
LePage didn’t wait for this debate, although House Speaker Sara Gideon had already introduced a bill to shift the oversight to the bureau. Last week, after insulting Gideon, he signed an executive order placing regulation in the hands of the bureau, but that shouldn’t stop lawmakers from more fully considering this change, including hearing from experts and the public. They can undo his executive order with a law change.
Oversight will be among the many marijuana-related issues a new 17-member legislative committee will consider. Lawmakers have already submitted dozens of bills related to the new marijuana law.
The governor has also demanded state funding to pay for implementation of the new law. Instead, lawmakers should raise the taxes to be levied on marijuana sales in Maine.
The tax rate set in Question 1 — 10 percent — is much too low. This revenue will flow into the state’s General Fund. A portion, under the referendum language, will go to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to train law enforcement officials on the new marijuana laws and rules.
Washington charges a 37 percent excise tax. Colorado has a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent special state tax on retail marijuana sales, plus a 2.9 percent sales tax on retail and medical marijuana. In addition, cities and town can assess their own local sales taxes. Denver, for example, charges a 3.5 percent tax on top of the state taxes.
As of November 2016, Colorado had collected more than $100 million in state taxes on marijuana for the year. The first $40 million in annual marijuana excise tax revenue is dedicated to a school construction fund; additional revenues go to a public school fund. This revenue stream nearly doubled between 2015 and 2016 as marijuana sales soared.
Revenue from the other two Colorado taxes funds dozens of state programs, including numerous cannabis research grants and education programs. It also funds mundane things like dental, health and life insurance for numerous state departments and vehicle lease payments.
Colorado’s experience should reassure Maine lawmakers that they can — and should — assess higher taxes on marijuana sales.