Former State Rep. Diane Russell on Maine’s Cannabis Legalization Woes

On November 5, 2016, Maine’s voters legalized recreational, or adult-use, marijuana. At the time, the state’s legalization bill was one of the most progressive, which included protections for home growers, preservation of one of the nation’s best medical marijuana programs, and a social consumption clause that would’ve made Maine one of the first states to host licensed cannabis bars and lounges.

But now we’re nearing the end of 2019, and Maine still hasn’t started its adult-use sales. Business licenses will soon be available, but when the state finally makes its first legal sale, it would have done so after a three-year delay.

So, what happened in Maine? Why did it take so long to roll out its legalization program, and most importantly, how can the next states to legalize prevent similar setbacks?

To find out, we spoke with one of the state’s most ardent cannabis backers, Diane Russell, who currently resides in Portland, Maine. From 2008 to 2016, Russell served as a state representative in Maine’s government. During her terms, she introduced two marijuana legalization bills, first in 2011 and again in 2013. Although her two bills didn’t make it through the legislature, she got people talking about legalization, not just in Maine, but across the US, as well.

“It was the first [legalization] vote we had in any state legislature, ever. That was not a small thing,” Russell said during a phone call, referring to her first attempt to push a legalization bill through Maine’s government. “A lot of folks were like, ‘Haha, you failed.’ But you don’t win these things out the gate. You have to build toward it.”

And building toward legalization worked. By the end of 2016, and after a lot of heated political infighting, Maine’s voters approved the bill by a hair, at just 50.3 percent. In fact, the vote was so close — by a difference of about 4,000 votes out of 750,000 ballots total — that some municipalities held recounts that carried through the holiday season. Ultimately, cannabis and its champions prevailed, but the state’s governor at the time, Paul LePage, blocked every effort he could to derail legalization’s rollout. And LePage was successful until term limits forced him out of office this year.

Today, Russell runs the Maine Cannabis Chronicle, a magazine devoted to all things cannabis in the Pine Tree State. She recently joined NORML’s Board of Directors, and she’s also starting up a Maine-based hemp company. On top of this, Russell is organizing the first National Legislative Cannabis Conference, which will bring lawmakers, activists, entrepreneurs, and attorneys together to school our nation’s politicians on marijuana’s basics — from the plant’s biology and the history of prohibition, to how other states’ legal industries function.

Given that Russell has served as a legislator and now works in the cannabis industry, MERRY JANE phoned her up to find out more about Maine’s legalization hiccups, why many politicians know almost nothing about the nation’s fastest growing industry, and how other states can avoid Maine’s legalization woes as they consider ending prohibition.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MERRY JANE: You introduced two legalization bills that didn’t make it through the legislature, but a voter referendum in 2016 finally got adult-use marijuana legalized in Maine. In your experience, why wasn’t Maine ready to legalize in 2011? 

Diane Russell: There’s a difference between the politicians and the people. The politicians have proven that they’re not ready for it, which is why I’m putting together the National Legislative Cannabis Conference. But that’s starting to change. Take a look at Illinois, the first state to pass [commercial retail] legalization through its legislature. [Editor’s Note: Vermont was the first to legalize adult-use cannabis through its legislature, but commercial sales are still banned there. Vermonters can grow and use their own cannabis, but they can’t sell it.]

Lawmakers were buying into the prohibition rhetoric. Some of them secretly wanted to vote for it, but they were afraid of their people [constituents and party peers]. Some thought I was crazy. They came up with all sorts of reasons why they wouldn’t vote for legalization. So, in 2016, we took our case to the people, and we won. It wasn’t that Maine wasn’t ready. It was that Maine’s politicians weren’t ready.

Governor Paul LePage abused his office to block legalization’s launch in Maine, even though a (slight) majority of voters approved it. Were there any other factors that complicated legalization’s launch?

Nope. I mean, the legislators didn’t know what they were doing. But, nope, it was exclusively on LePage.

For states that are considering legalization, what should they do to prevent a governor or legislators from intentionally delaying rollout?

One, it has to be a referendum state, and the law has to be [passed] by referendum. [Editor’s Note: A referendum is any bill that is approved solely by the voters. Some states do not allow voter-led referendums, where only elected politicians can write and approve laws.]

Two, you have to require that rules pass into law, not just the statues. In the referendum, you must include dates for when the rules must be finalized. So, it’s not what may be done, but what shall be done.

How can states prevent the common issues of rollout, such as product shortages or price issues, or do you believe those are just part of legalization’s growing pains?

There are always going to be issues when you roll out a new market. You need to include adequate time for cannabis cultivation in the laws. A lot of states are allowing business owners who want to sell for adult-use to cultivate the first supply under their medical licenses. But you have to be careful with that, because you don’t want to limit the medical cannabis supply. That can really hurt patients, especially if people grow normally for medical, and suddenly they want to grow high-THC for adult-use. They may stop growing the type of products that medical patients need.

Additionally, when you supply from a [medical to adult-use] crossover, you take cannabis supply from the medical community. The fix to this is to let the medical cultivators grow an adult-use supply separate from the medical supply. That way you’re rewarding people who are already in the industry.

Or, you can roll-out the licensing in a way that allows for the cultivation of adult-use cannabis to literally grow. There’s an expectation that once an adult-use store opens, there’s magically going to be product. But if you haven’t gone through the time it takes to grow cannabis, and you haven’t awarded those licenses in a timely manner so those businesses can get off the ground and complete their cultivation, you’re going to have a real shortage of supply pretty quickly.

Lastly, we can make it a lot easier for people to get their medical cards, such as by qualifying patients for overall wellness, not just debilitating conditions. For folks that live in our state and are going to want a [cannabis] product, they can get it through the medical chain. That way they can start getting their product earlier, and that will increase demand in the medical market, but doing it while adult-use is still getting developed. So, you’re increasing the supply and the demand naturally, then when adult-use goes online, there are fewer people who don’t already have access to the market. 

In your experience, what’s legalization’s best strategy going forward?

You have to do it state by state. We need to get all the legislators in a room together and educate them, because they don’t understand cannabis. They need a Cannabis 101 education. They need to be taught, “What is cannabis?” What’s the difference between a cannabis plant and a hemp plant? What are people using cannabis for? What are the terms? What’s a dab, right? Then, building from that foundation, we get them to a place where they understand the key areas that really do need to be regulated.

Here’s an example. I was in a Portland city council meeting the other day. They were discussing a social equity component for the adult-use program, and it was aimed at helping women, minorities, and immigrants who’ve been here less than 10 years. The broader rule covers black communities, but nobody on the council mentioned that this social equity component was restorative justice for the disproportionate impact prohibition has had on black communities. They thought it was a welfare program. And it was because they didn’t understand where it came from; they just copy-and-pasted the text from another state’s legalization bill. 

This wasn’t a welfare program. It was a restorative justice program, and the council didn’t understand it because they just copy-and-pasted it. Copy-and-pasting works fine in some instances, but if you’re going to do it, you should do your due diligence and know why you’re copy-and-pasting something.

How do you think legalization will soon unfold in Maine?

This week, the recreational applications open for submissions. One of the big issues in the bill is we let municipalities opt-out, meaning towns or cities could opt-out of allowing adult-use stores. Then the legislature came in and changed it to opt-in, and that has been a regulatory nightmare at the municipal level. Now, communities have to decide to opt-in, rather than having a business approach them and say, “I’d like to open a business here, and this is what I’ve been doing.”

These municipal officials also don’t know what they’re doing. And I want to be clear: Most people who serve in public office, they’ve had other careers. Being in office isn’t the only thing they do; most of them are just doing it to give back to their community. So, when I say they don’t know what they’re doing, I don’t say that as a pejorative. They actually just don’t know.

But, for companies that have already gone through the municipal process, and they’ve already been licensed by their municipality, then getting the state license shouldn’t be that hard. And then they should be able to open adult-use stores in the next few months. 

That’s the big hurdle right now though: Municipalities opting in. 

The opt-in requirement means everyone in Maine is effectively voting twice on legalization?

Yes. We always thought municipalities had the right to be “dry,” like with liquor stores. The difference is, most people are beyond their concerns for prohibition of alcohol, whereas weed seems scary still.

For legalization to succeed on a national or even international level, what needs to happen next?

The issue comes down to educating politicians. The industry leaders are very much focused on the industry, but they’re not as focused on the politics. Maine has a robust group of caregivers who consistently show up to the state house, and they fight for the things that they care about. But they’re often not listened to. 

Even though we have public financing — and I strongly support that — if the industry wants to be heard, they have to start writing checks. And they can’t just write checks for low-level, local politicians; they need to write big checks to the state’s leadership. To the PACs. They need to host fundraisers for pro-cannabis candidates. When you start doing that, and you start funneling money from an industry — which every other industry does — into campaigns, you’re going to be given a better seat at the table. 

Right now, I think people are just being run roughshod over. It’s a sad state of affairs that you can’t just be an Average Joe or Jane and talk to your politicians and make a difference. To some degree you can do that, but when we’re talking about rolling out an industry that every politician is terrified of — even I was terrified of it, even as I was championing it — it’s frightening to step out on this issue. 

Do you have any more advice to cannabis industry leaders?

Invite these politicians into your grow site and into your stores. Bring them in. One person can’t do this on their own. Every business owner needs to say, “Come check out my grow site. Come see my retail space.” Most politicians think everything in a dispensary is decked out with Grateful Dead imagery. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a huge part of the culture, but there’s a large consumer base that wants something more refined, something that feels like walking up to a Macy’s makeup counter. That exists, too. 

A lot of politicians don’t realize just how professional and high-end these adult-use stores are. And they don’t understand how scientific and advanced the technology is around these cultivation sites. Politicians are stunned when they have to put on booties and lab coats to walk into the grow site, because it’s all about preventing new materials from infecting the plants. They don’t understand that some grow rooms you can’t open because they’re in their dark phase. They don’t understand the amount of work that goes into just the lighting. They don’t understand that the industry gets PhD-level chemists and botanists working at these research centers. 

The more the politicians can see that, the more they’re going to come back to their people — other lawmakers — and talk about it. And that’s when things start to get more mainstream. 

Follow Diane Russell on Twitter

You can also check out Russell’s upcoming cannabis education conference for lawmakers at the official National Legislative Cannabis Conference website

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