Patricia Rosi is the chief operating officer of the Wellness Connection of Maine, which is threatening to sue the state over a residency requirement in proposed recreational marijuana rules. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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Rules for Maine’s new recreational marijuana market are set to be fast-tracked through the Legislature during the next week, but a legal threat from the state’s biggest dispensary group over a residency requirement is complicating work on them.

It is the first push from the administration of Gov. Janet Mills to get the recreational market started about 2 1/2 years after Maine voters narrowly approved it at referendum. Former Gov. Paul LePage vetoed two sets of rules before he left office. There is now urgency to allow sales.

Before that happens, the Legislature will have to pass a set of rules proposed by the Mills administration before it is scheduled to adjourn next Wednesday. This compressed timeframe has put them under the gun, most notably from the state’s biggest medical marijuana business.

The main conflict around the set of rules stems from the financial backers of the biggest dispensary chain in Maine. Maine’s regulated medical marijuana market was established by voters in 2009. Since then, Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four of the state’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries, has emerged as the dominant player in the market.

The group has also long had out-of-state financial backers, a group that now includes Acreage Holdings, Inc., a Canadian company that says it has operations in 20 states with a heavy-hitting board that includes former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The company has forecasted a $265 million market here by 2022.

The Mills administration’s rules include a residency requirement for people who control marijuana business, which Wellness Connection says it would sue the state over as an unconstitutional limitation on outside funding that is needed because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. That lawsuit would likely hold up implementation of the market.

Erik Gundersen, director of Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy, said in testimony that he would be open to negotiating over the requirement and Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the chairman of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said it’s the item that will “take the most time” to work through.

The rules were mostly received warmly otherwise, with other interest groups looking to get the system up and running before quibbling too much. There are other issues for the committee to decide on before finalizing the rules. Wellness Connection and interest groups for caregivers — the often home-based growers who compete with dispensaries — want to be able to co-locate medical and recreational marijuana operations with separate sales areas.

Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine, a group advocating for caregivers, said the Mills administration did a “great job” balancing the “complexity of the industry” while advocating for changes that wouldn’t further compound the “multi-year delay” in getting the system moving. That sentiment underlies the rush for many to get the rules passed.

Collins could get first well-known challenger

The third-place finisher in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary has been considering a 2020 U.S. Senate run and will make a ‘special announcement.’ Hallowell lobbyist Betsy Sweet has scheduled a “special announcement” on Thursday at the Gardiner Common. She didn’t respond to a message on Wednesday morning, but Sweet is expected to say she’s running against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020 after telling the Bangor Daily News last week that she was considering it and a decision would come “relatively soon.”

Sweet finished third in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary won by Mills in a ranked-choice race where Sweet’s supporters broke in Mills’ favor over lawyer Adam Cote. That was a surprising result to some, as Sweet finished ahead of three sitting or former legislators, including former House Speaker Mark Eves.

She ran using Maine’s taxpayer-funded Clean Election system then, which won’t be available to her on the federal level against Collins, who has become a Democratic target after her November vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is likely to announce for the race after the end of the 2019 legislative session, while Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and developer Rosa Scarcelli — who lost statewide primaries in 2012 and 2010, respectively — have also indicated interest. Little-known Saco lawyer Bre Kidman is the only Democrat running so far.

Today in A-town

A deal is expected on the two-year budget today. Rumblings around the State House on Wednesday were that the Legislature’s appropriations committee is set to vote in the afternoon on the two-year Maine budget due at month’s end. Most of the deal has been in place for weeks now and it is expected to come in just below $8 billion, a shade lower than what was proposed by Mills earlier this year.

After that, lawmakers will have to agree on how much money will be dedicated to bills initially approved by the Legislature but lacking funding. Those bills call for hundreds of millions of dollars in state spending, so many will die because there won’t be money to pay for them.

One of the most controversial bills in that group is one to supplant a federal ban on abortion funding in most cases by allowing state dollars to cover abortion under MaineCare. Republicans vehemently oppose it and have hinted that it could be an issue relating to the budget.

Gideon said Tuesday there were 128 bills that haven’t been acted upon in the chambers yet, with long calendars in the House and Senate today. Expect lawmakers to hit those items early today until the budget vote in the appropriations committee, after which discussion will turn — probably into the evening — to the unfunded bills.

Reading list

— A major influx of asylum seekers is straining Portland’s resources. Maine Public reports that after a change in policy at the U.S. Border, Portland has received, as of Tuesday morning, a total of 67 asylum seekers in the past two days, with as many as 150 to come in the next few days. Border and customs officials are now sending asylum seekers to their destination city. But because they have not begun the process required to gain asylum, they are not eligible for state and federal aid. The new arrivals in Portland are likely to need help from the city’s community support fund, which only has $200,000 in reserve, according to a city spokesperson. The Portland Press Herald reports that the city will use the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter to accommodate the influx of asylum seekers, which city officials said soon could approach 300.

— Maine Democrats continued their winning streak in special elections for legislative seats. Voters in Cumberland and part of Gray elected former Rep. Stephen Moriarty to the Maine House of Representatives on Tuesday, giving Democrats their third straight easy win in special elections for the chamber in 2019. Moriarty, a retired lawyer from Cumberland who served one House term from 2012 to 2014, won the seat vacated in March by the late Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, with 61.6 percent of votes to 38.4 percent for Republican KC Hughes of Cumberland, according to unofficial results. Democrats previously won special elections for House seats in Bath and a district that covers parts of Bangor and Orono.

— A bipartisan effort to reduce prescription prices is moving through the Maine Legislature. On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously endorsed four bills that aim to lower prescription costs or improve access to medication. The package, championed by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would begin a Canadian drug importation program subject to federal approval, hold pharmacy benefit managers to higher standards, create a board to set drug price targets for public entities, and require more data on costs of drug production, marketing and prices. The bills require further votes in each chamber.

— Jurors reviewed crime scene photos during the second day of the trial of a man who fatally shot a Somerset County deputy. Tuesday was the second day of what’s expected to be a two-week murder trial of John D. Williams, who attorneys on both sides agree shot Cpl. Eugene Cole in the early morning hours of April 25, 2018. In dispute is whether Williams “knowingly or intentionally” killed Cole when he shot him, which could allow a lesser manslaughter charge instead of murder. While the basic timeline of events in the early morning hours of April 25, 2018, is not in dispute, prosecutors are arguing, in part, that forensic evidence helps prove this is a murder case, not a manslaughter case. Jurors also heard from law enforcement officers who responded to Cole’s shooting and from people Williams contacted shortly after his encounter with the deputy.

Sneaky snakes

After years of fear, trash talk and overt animosity, I have achieved a delicate state of detente with snakes. I still don’t trust a creature that can’t scratch itself, but as long as they don’t startle me while I’m gardening and stay out of my house, we seem to have settled on a grudging state of co-existence.

But then I read about the “ zombie snake.”

This changes everything. Years of working through serpentine trust issues that may or may not have required intensive therapeutic intervention have been lost like a snakeskin shed in the bulkhead leading to our cellar.

The eastern hognose snake fakes its own death. I did not need to know this. Herpetologists say it’s to fool predators, but I’m not buying it. And the fervor its defenders use to frame public perception of the ruse only heightens my alarm.

The snake “does play dead when threatened. It does NOT die and come back to life like a zombie,” North Carolina wildlife officials told CBS News. Well, that’s certainly reassuring.

When the eastern hognose is not faking its own death, “its tendency to suck in air and spread the skin around its head and neck like a cobra, while hissing and pretending to strike, has earned it the well-known nickname ‘puff adder.’”

Fake zombie? Fake cobra? Now do you see why I walk around with my socks tucked into my pants on the few days I venture outside during snake season? Here is your soundtrack. –– Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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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...