AUGUSTA, Maine — A supermajority of the Maine House of Representatives endorsed a regulatory bill for the state’s new recreational marijuana market Tuesday, bringing the state the closest it has been to implementing a 2016 legalization referendum.

It’s the Legislature’s second bid in a year to set up a commercial system for marijuana cultivation and sales. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed last year’s attempt to implement a regulatory system, and a special marijuana committee returned to the issue in 2018.

On Tuesday, the Democratic-led House voted 112-34 to back a new bill from that panel. It sets an effective 20 percent tax rate on marijuana products, gives Maine residents a priority for commercial licenses and sets health and safety standards.

The bill faces further action in both chambers of the Legislature, but if Tuesday’s margin holds, there is a good chance the new bill could withstand a veto from the Republican governor. However, 16 Democrats and 15 Republicans — some pro-marijuana and others LePage allies — opposed it.

Backers say it is the best possible solution to clear up a gray marijuana market, where it’s legal to possess recreational marijuana but not to sell it. Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, who co-chaired the marijuana committee, said “the status quo just isn’t what we should be doing.”

“I realize that this will be a work in progress going forward, but let’s get us off on good footing,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, who voted for the bill.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who led opposition to the bill from the left, said that moving control of the medical program to Maine’s finance department from the Department of Health and Human Services would hurt patients.

Conservative opponents argued that it was wrong to support the bill because marijuana remains federally illegal. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, asked rhetorically, “If the citizens were to do a referendum to legalize heroin, do we then have an obligation to make the heroin law, a better law?”

Legislators have scrapped a cap on commercial production of marijuana favored by Legalize Maine, a group of small medical marijuana providers that wrote the voter-approved law. The new bill would lower the number of flowering plants that can be possessed for personal use from six to three and nix the “marijuana social clubs” that were in the referendum.

Those moves were opposed by Paul McCarrier, Legalize Maine’s president, who told WVOM on Tuesday that the bill would pave the way for “Big Tobacco” to control the market and “we don’t believe that they should be the ones to try to come in here and take this industry over.”

Even if this law passes, marijuana stores may not open in Maine until at least 2020. LePage has been reticent to implement new marijuana laws and his administration would have to issue rules governing the commercial system. The governor also leaves office in early 2019, so opening the wider marijuana market will likely fall to the person elected to succeed him in the November election.

It’s also unclear how quickly a market would develop under the proposal. The Maine Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, suggested to lawmakers that the state share marijuana revenue with municipalities that allow it. It wasn’t included in the bill.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...