By Scott Thistle

The Maine House voted Tuesday to sustain Gov. Paul LePage's veto of a bill that would put in place the legal framework for retail sales of recreational marijuana.

The bill was the result of more than nine months of special committee work, after voters narrowly approved a law that put Maine among eight states and the District of Columbia to legalize the adult use of marijuana.

Although Maine was among the first states to pass a medical marijuana law, the drug remains illegal at the federal level, a key reason LePage said he vetoed the measure, which was passed by the Legislature in October with bipartisan support.

In his veto letter, LePage also said the bill sets unrealistic time lines for launching the market, fails to address shortcomings in the medical marijuana program, creates a confusing regulatory system, and might not generate enough tax revenue to cover the cost of market implementation or regulation. In short, he dismisses the bill as a risky, inconsistent, expensive rush job.

While campaigning for reelection in 2014, LePage said that if voters approved legal marijuana he would support that decision. But he backed away from that in his veto letter, writing,"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."

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, a key LePage ally in the Legislature, issued a statement Monday saying that regardless of the outcome of the override vote, it was unlikely that retail sales of recreational marijuana would begin before a moratorium expires on Feb.1 of 2018. He called on lawmakers to extend the moratorium, to provide time for the administration to do the rulemaking that establishes details of retail licensing and a tax regime.

"Regardless of what action the Maine Legislature takes today regarding recreational marijuana, it's simply not realistic to think that the necessary rules will be in place by February 1," Fredette, who is among the Republicans seeking his party's nomination for governor in 2018, said in a prepared statement. "The Legislature needs to do the responsible thing and extend this moratorium today or as soon as we return for the new session beginning in January."

Fredette introduced legislation in October that sought to extend the moratorium through January 1, 2019 or July 1, 2018, but the bill was killed in the House of Representatives.

Current law makes it legal for adults to use and possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, or grow up to six plants of their own, but does not allow commercial production of marijuana or retail sales.

It is estimated that recreational marijuana could be an industry worth as much a $325 million a year for Maine.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the committee that wrote the implementation bill, is telling colleagues the override vote is about regulation, not legalization.

"The legalization ship has sailed, the people have spoken," Katz told the Press Herald last week. "It's not about whether you voted for legalization. I certainly didn't vote for it. But that's not what the bill is about. This bill is about taxing and regulating a market that the majority of Maine voters want, just like we do with alcohol, with tobacco. If we do not pass this bill, if we go back to an unchecked black market, we will go back to chaos. Who could want that?"

(c)2017 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)