How Maine Devolved From Cannabis Oasis to Battleground for Session’s Federal Crackdown

CANNABIS CULTURE – Short answer, a racist, sexist buffon Governor chose partisan prohibitrion rhetoric over the will of the people he was elected to represent.

Maine’s Governor, Republican Paul Lepage (pictured below – Photo courtesy Associated Press), has declared he received guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and cited the current Federal prohibition as the reason he vetoed of a bill that would legalize cannabis in the North Eastern Coastal state. This bill, struck down with a swipe of Lepage’s pen,  was given an overwhelming mandate by the public in a 2016 referendum on legal cannabis. And so now, legal access to cannabis appears to have stalled because power has refused to honor democracy. How did it gets this bad? Who is left to fight for justice? Keep reading and we’ll tell you.  

 

In an article on Cnn.com, Lepage is quoted to say, “Until I clearly understand how the federal government intends to treat states that seek to legalize marijuana, I cannot in good conscience support any scheme in state law to implement expansion of legal marijuana in Maine,” he said, in a letter to state lawmakers. “We need assurances that a change in policy or administration at the federal level will not nullify those investments.”

Meanwhile, in a small island-town aptly named Eastport, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, on the most eastern tip of the U.S., resides The Rose Bud. It’s a cannabis lounge, one of the few “officially” licensed in the entire country, a trend that is beginning to emerge in other states which have legalized cannabis.

Only a couple years ago the lounge was a bar, but the ownership hasn’t changed, just the purpose of the space. Al, the owner, has created a hippy-themed smoker’s paradise. There are tributes to the legends of 70s and 80s rock and roll hung alongside his own detailed, psychedelic, wood carvings and various pictures from local artists. He decided to keep many amenities of the bar, from a pool table, to a huge screen tv hung on the wall, along with cable and free WIFI. Now instead of providing a place to drink the lounge provides a place to smoke, the only caveat being that lounge members need to bring their own cannabis from home until he can legally sell it to them.

Al (pictured above) has lived through much tougher times regarding cannabis law, so he remains optimistic and well informed about the new and ever-changing regulations. He politely turns away would-be customers, while confidently reassuring them that one day soon they will be able to purchase cannabis over the counter like a pack of cigarettes. Al works hard to create a uniquely comfortable environment and provide resources, along with knowledge and advice about cannabis for a modest $10 monthly membership fee. The fee is more formality, which makes the existence of the establishment legal, than a source of revenue. For now, Al keeps the doors open because of his passion for cannabis’ healing abilities, he doesn’t smoke cannabis regularly, he never did, and though he has dreadlocks that hang nearly to the floor, he is far from the stereotype of a stoner.

Al became involved in the medical marijuana community through his desire to help others. He gained interest in the medicinal value of cannabis after suffering the loss of his wife to cancer. He researched the plant and after learning the extensive benefits and possibilities cannabis provided, he decided to become a medical cannabis caregiver. Members of the community who had been involved for longer than him provided seeds and clone cuttings from strains which are known to thrive locally, giving him a quick start into the industry. He then began to grow the plant for his first time, in his sixties, and found himself to have an innate green thumb. He has been cultivating buds consistently achieving THC levels above 20% and abounding with aromatic terpenes since he started. Now that he’s harvested a surplus of his pungent cannabis, Al is filling up jars and storing them to cure, building a diverse flavor profile while he waits to see what happens in the state legislature.

When Maine legalized cannabis for recreational use through a referendum in December last year, Al immediately sought a license to create a lounge. He explained that he could provide an environment in which people could use their medicine or recreational cannabis, while also providing insight and information about the products that they are using. His request was granted, and he immediately opened his doors.  A sign is proudly displayed on water street, the town’s main road,  directing people one block up to the bright neon sign welcoming both locals and tourists alike to the most comfortable setting in America to smoke cannabis. The “average crowd” encompasses a range of people, residents as young as 18 to seniors in their 80s are consuming cannabis together in all fashions. The smokers are as unique and various as the reasons that they use cannabis, from recreational users smoking for fun to people who need specific strains in specific quantities to treat illnesses or relieve severe pain.  There are young people showing the generation before them new innovations like dabs and distilled THC, while reciprocally folks that have been members of the community since as early as the 60s provide insight like time tested cultivation advice, or recipes for the best infused peanut butter cookies around. Al is relying on his elected representatives to draft regulations for recreational sales and not delay any further, because as it stands the business is operating at a wash, making just enough to keep the lights on.

On August 1st of 2016 a ballot initiative narrowly passed in Maine legalizing the sale of cannabis for the use of adults over 21 years old. The new law does not affect the 1999 legalization of medicinal cannabis but rather coincides with it. The initiative allows cannabis users to grow their own marijuana (up to six plants), possess and use it. Additionally, it legalizes the sale of cannabis and mandates a 10% sales tax. All aspects of the referendum were set to come into effect on January 30th of 2017 until the state legislature passed House Bill LD88 which postponed the sale of cannabis until February 1st of 2018 in an attempt to provide lawmakers with time to create regulations regarding licensing and industry standards. Lamentably additional regulations have not been passed by the legislature and the cannabis market has been left in a limbo, with recreational smokers legally allowed to grow and possess cannabis but with nowhere to legally purchase it. Since LD88 passed constituents have been turning out to town meetings, upset over the lack of a cohesive, detailed tax plan or regulatory standards for the products. Residents of rural areas, which are prime for large outdoor cultivation operations, have been demanding a tax plan guaranteeing that new revenue will benefit the regions which generate it. Additionally, residents don’t want big cannabis businesses from other states moving in and taking over the industry now that it’s legal. Activists and members of the community say that they have worked hard to make a change and now they want to reap the benefits. Maine state senator Joyce Maker recently drafted a piece of legislation which attempted to integrate all this input from her constituents.

LD 1650, which received overwhelming support from representatives and voters alike, would have provided the necessary foundation for taxation and regulation of cannabis. It mandated that taxes collected from the production and sales of cannabis be pooled separately from the General Fund where most tax dollars end up. The bill designated that 50% of the revenue be used for programs, resources, and funding in the community which cultivated and sold the cannabis. Also included was a stipulation requiring individuals to have lived in the state for a minimum of two years before applying for a license to open a shop or to cultivate more than the standard limit of 6 mature plants. This rule would have effectively given locals enough time to open shops and establish control over most of the market before any outsiders could even get started. On the 23rd of October the state legislature held a one-day special session and passed LD 1650, with veto proof margins in the Senate but not in the House. That day the cannabis community rejoiced and Al saw a future in sight The Rosebud, but it seemed too good to be true.

On November 8th Maine’s governor Paul LePage vetoed House Bill LD 1650. He cited an array of factors in making his decision, from the U.S. Opiate Epidemic to the anti-cannabis agenda of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. LePage said “Sending a message, especially to our young people, that some drugs that are still illegal under federal law are now sanctioned by the state may have unintended and grave consequences” seemingly insinuating that using cannabis correlates to other harder-drug use. Conversely, scientists have long discredited any link between cannabis and heavy narcotic use. In fact, states which have legalized cannabis have seen a decline in opiate abuse as many individuals who suffer chronic pain have turned to cannabis for relief. Maine is being hit especially hard by the opiate epidemic, with data showing nearly 4% of adults in the State die from overdose.[1] Representatives need to take any advantage they can get in tapering off the increased use of heroin. The decision to veto is a disappointment, but not much of a surprise due to LePage’s history of making decisions that don’t represent the will of Maine voters. The legislature had the opportunity to override his veto by rallying a larger majority of yes votes in the House but failed to do so, leaving the bill dead in the water.

Now that LD1650 has been vetoed the start date for recreational sale of cannabis has reset to February of 2018 and some lawmakers have expressed intent to try and delay until 2019, for the purpose of giving the legislature more time to craft comprehensive regulations, but no bills have been formally introduced yet. The community is refusing to give up and is calling for representatives to take this time as an opportunity to write even better legislation. They want a plan which designates in detail what the cannabis tax dollars will be spent on, and they want it to be something which is guaranteed to uplift the hardworking people of Maine and not just line the pockets of a few well connected people who are already wealthy.

Some have suggested pumping the resources into education which is drastically underfunded, while others have recommended a look at deteriorating infrastructure. Additionally, there have been requests for more specific regulations regarding the quality of the cannabis itself, such as mandatory state testing to ensure an absence of poisonous pesticides. While it is legal to provide and cultivate for a patient as a medical cannabis caregiver in Maine, there are no FDA or HHS standards for product safety. The state also does not have facilities for caregivers to voluntarily test their cannabis and guarantee quality for their patients. These are the fundamental issues which voters are looking to their representatives to solve with new legislation in January of 2018 when their next session will begin.

It’s easy to understand why there is so much controversy over the recreational sale, legalization, and taxation of cannabis. It is likely to generate tens of millions of dollars for businesses and the government in Maine which has been suffering from a long recession. Other states have experienced pitfalls in collecting and spending cannabis tax dollars, and Mainers want the legislature to learn from them. For example, in 2014 cannabis was legalized and began to be taxed in Colorado and the state received tens of millions in new tax dollars. There was so much money generated through cannabis taxes that the spending plan created by the state did not fully utilize all of the money generated and a large surplus of funds remained. The overage of 66 million dollars was then divided into roughly 400,000 reimbursement checks for every person in the state who paid income tax, regardless of whether or not they contributed any cannabis tax dollars. Though tax refunds sound nice, this exemplified how poor planning can waste public resources. Those millions of dollars could have gone to various underfunded social programs or created something new for the state, from homeless shelters to a new stadium. Mainers don’t want to risk their tax dollars ending up in someone else’s pocket, they don’t even want them leaving the communities which generated them.

In Maine, economic and environmental factors have changed the landscape of the fishing industry leaving only lobstering as the primary means of income for fishermen. Meanwhile most paper mills and lumber companies have shut down, leaving a huge job gap in a state whose residents have traditionally relied on agricultural production to make a living. Voters are now tasked with holding their representatives accountable for the clear and simple requests that they have been making in town meetings for over a year now. They want cannabis to be legalized, they want the taxes to stay local, and they want people from the community to receive the first round of licenses. The desire to limit initial licensing to residents is not simply a self-serving agenda. Small businesses are more likely to invest in their local communities and spend their money on goods and lifestyle expenses within the state where they achieved prosperity. As a result, small businesses spread the new wealth throughout the community, they create jobs, and additional tax revenue for the state. On the other hand, large national and multi-national corporations that are already wealthy tend to spread their portfolios throughout different states and keep their money in an assortment of different banks, including foreign ones, to guarantee paying as few taxes on their income as possible. Therefore, it is in the interest of both voters and legislators alike to approve of regulations and licensing which favor locals.

Pro-cannabis activists have been working hard for a long time to preserve the cannabis culture in Maine despite the lack of support from the federal government, and the emerging industry would not exist if they hadn’t. While some states have become synonymous with cannabis use, others have become known for jailing people over nearly microscopic quantities. For the last two decades states such as Tennessee and Missouri have passed laws furthering the federal governments agenda and have incarcerated millions of people for possessing personal quantities. Those states have remained in the dark ages of cannabis, while more than half of the country has decriminalized or legalized it for medicinal or recreational use. Cannabis is now an undeniable part of American society with tens of millions of active users throughout all 50 states, and more Americans trying it for the first time every day.

In Maine there is a special appreciation and love for cannabis, along with a sentiment of pride for being among the 4 states to legalize medicinal cannabis before the year 2000. Generations ago, many residents figured out what strains they liked to grow and smoke the most. They acquired seeds of those original landraces and ever since they have been breeding new hybrid strains creating dozens of hidden treasures, indigenous and often available only in certain regions of the state. Rural communities found strains which could thrive in the nontemperate outdoor climate with long cold winters and humid summers. In the urban centers of the state like Portland and Bangor, denser population and less private lawn space created a need for indoor cultivation. Folks had to import new strains that were genetically predisposition to grow shorter and wider so they could fit under 8-foot ceilings.  As a result, in times when most people in the U.S. were smoking strains like Panama Red or Acapulco Gold that were brick packed and shipped into the country, Mainers were cultivating and smoking delicious, aromatic strains which evolved into local favorites such as Passion #1, Chronic, and Sour Diesel. Many of these strains can still be found in the now-legal cannabis dispensaries scattered throughout the state, alongside their new derivatives in an ever-expanding family tree.

Deep rooted agricultural tradition and predominantly libertarian philosophy have made the state an ideal breeding ground for pro-cannabis activism and reform, but Mainers are not only libertarian when it comes to cannabis. Maine is consistently among States which are first to enact change to further personal rights. In fact, protection of individual rights in Maine date back to before the state even joined the union. Massachusetts which enveloped Maine until 1820 became one of the first states to abolish slavery in 1789 following the lead of Vermont. By the time Maine became the 23rd member of the Union slavery had been illegal in the State for 30 years. The state even touts some of the most liberal firearm regulations in the country with what is called “constitutional carry” allowing all adults to possess and openly carry or conceal a fire arm, with new gun regulations consistently voted against every year. On the 2016 ballot in Maine, the only initiative that didn’t pass was additional restrictions on gun access. Predictably this culture with such strong libertarian beliefs has fostered a nurturing environment for cultivators and smokers alike.

One of the primary factors creating duplicity in the U.S. cannabis industry is the degree to which law enforcement prosecute cannabis users and cultivators differently from state to state and on a federal level. No community can thrive in an environment which rejects its presence. Therefor as more regions of the country passed increasingly strict, no tolerance policies for offenses as simple as possessing a joint, people who wanted to be able to smoke in piece migrated to the few states where they could do so. This migration of cannabis users, including thousands from the hippie revolution of the 1970s only further bolstered the movement which was already gaining momentum. Simultaneously the overwhelming ethos of passive enforcement, rather than active persecution, in local and federal law enforcement in Maine has had a large part to play in fostering a community with significant knowledge, understanding, and passion for cannabis.

While interviewing and smoking some locally cultivated Short n’ Sweet with a retired federal agent, who spent nearly 20 years working for the justice department in and out of Maine, it became clear that cannabis which was grown and smoked within the state was never a priority to law enforcement. Dave had never smoked cannabis before April of this year, though he never disliked anything other than the smell, he decided he would give it a try if it meant that he wouldn’t need to use opiates to manage pain stemming from a tumor growing on his jugular. Growing up as a teenager in the 70s he describes a community in which cannabis was commonplace. His friends smoked joints in the quad at school and he smoked cigarettes while small scale dealers sold herb out of bags that they kept in their lockers. When they got busted they’d get kicked out of the school, but not usually legally prosecuted. Dave described multiple occasions while working for the state department he helped intercept refrigerator containers being shipped into the state loaded with cannabis, but instead of doing a controlled delivery and busting everyone at the residence receiving the box, it was destroyed at a federal facility. Generally, during his time with the justice department the rule of thumb was to only use cannabis as a means to bust large criminal organizations which deal in human trafficking, heavy narcotics or were involved in murders. This generally passive attitude from law enforcement towards cannabis even through the harshest years of the propaganda and persecution has helped create the thriving and now legal community of open cannabis cultivation and consumption.

Mainers are friendly to outsiders, but generally don’t like to talk about anything personal with them. This practice is especially evident when addressing subjects which are even slightly considered to be part of the counter culture. The tradition of relative secrecy has created a comfortable environment for various factions of American society which have been persecuted or discriminated against. LGBTQ Individuals have long found Maine and neighboring Massachusetts to be a haven where they could forge a community, while still remaining in the shadows enough to avoid maltreatment, eventually gaining enough societal prominence and acceptance to effect legislative change, culminating in the legalization of marriage for gay couples in 2012. It was necessary for cannabis users to take the same route, including staying out of the spotlight until public consensus favored legalization, especially while most of the country was being purged of cannabis and all information regarding it. At the same time, individual activists and advocate groups like NORML have been fighting the hard battle of creating policy change.

If the desires of the people are finally met and cannabis can complete its emergence from the shadows as a full-fledged industry, all that hard work will finally come to fruition. The strains which were created, and then back bred or further crossed into new hybrid strains for decades now, have been conditioned to thrive in the north-eastern climate. They now have the potential to become the state’s biggest cash crop if proper legislation is passed. These strains along with the extensive knowledge that has been gained along the years while creating them, will be local cultivators greatest advantage in competing on a national level and securing their rightful share of the market. Understanding how to recognize specific strains, and knowledge of their effects is vital to supplying users with the correct cannabis to suite their taste or need. These skills are even more crucial when breeding new strains of cannabis to ensure a beneficial blend of terpenoids and other characteristics from the parent strains. Having a multi-generational head start in understanding these principles, Mainers possess a definitive leg-up in a market ruled by innovation and trends.