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Pot legalization advocates say they're gaining ground

Over a year ago, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, raised eyebrows when she proposed legislation legalizing marijuana.
Today, Russell — who's up for re-election in District 120, which includes part of Munjoy Hill — says she has reintroduced her bill, LD 1453, with hopes of shepherding it through the Maine Legislature in the next session.8-25-med-mar-2
Russell, whose "Act to Legalize and Tax Marijuana" failed in 2011, is expected to restoke the legalization debate in 2013. She advocates legalization as a way to rechannel public resources now used to prosecute marijuana users.
"I hope that one day, that we'll be in a place where we're better allocating our resources toward addiction instead of turning pot smokers into criminals," Russell said.
Russell's legalization bill was something new, and people hadn't seen anyone "throw down" in that way on the issue, Russell said. Now, assuming she wins re-election, Russell said the chances of passage are even greater.
"I reintroduced LD 1453 already in advance of next year. Obviously I have to win my re-election before that takes effect," Russell said.
"There has been a dramatic shift in the level of support for legalization since I put that bill in," Russell said Friday.
Medical marijuana is considered a separate issue from legalization, and Russell said her stance on legalization helps advocates of medical use of marijuana.
"It creates a little more space for the medical marijuana community," she said.
Russell is a guest speaker at Atlantic CannaFEST, an event informing the public about Maine's medical marijuana program. The festival is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 1, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Deering Oaks Park.
Proponents of medical marijuana, including Republican legislators such as Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, are closely watching as the state's Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services under the Health and Human Services Department reviews public comments on proposed rules governing the state's medical cannabis law.
Sanderson said the state should not implement rules that are more restrictive and divergent from the intent of the citizen's initiative legalizing medical marijuana passed in 2009.
Russell said her experience with the medical marijuana issue is that legislators — rather than shying away from legalization of marijuana for medical use — are committed to preserving its availability.
"They were very concerned about a medical marijuana law ... they really wanted to protect it, they wanted to make sure that patients that needed it would have access to medical marijuana," Russell said of fellow legislators.
Portland has a state-licensed nonprofit medical cannabis dispensary, run by Wellness Connection of Maine at 685 Congress St., just behind Local 188.
The debate over medical marijuana has matured to the point that advocates now discuss whether dispensaries, often considered more costly than caregivers, are the best sources of the medicine.
"There's a lot of folks from the caregiver community that are very upset that the dispensaries came in, they're largely from out of state," Russell said.
Charlie Wynott, organizer of Atlantic CannaFEST, said next Saturday's festival will seek to connect patients with caregivers, with a focus on affordability.
The goal, he said, is "advocacy and trying to hook the patients up with caregivers. We want to encourage our patients to connect with caregivers so they can get their medicine at a lower price than what the dispensaries are offering."
Wynott said Atlantic CannaFEST also seeks to raise awareness of the DHHS rules.
"Our purpose for this event is to rally against the new proposed rules that were proposed in the state," he said.
As comments on the proposed rules are reviewed, Republican Reps. Heather Sirocki of Scarborough and Sanderson, along with Democratic Rep. Mark Dion, another guest speaker at Atlantic CannaFEST, have called for a group of stakeholders to meet and develop rules that would follow the intent of Maine's medical marijuana law.
Libertarian U.S. Senate Candidate Andrew Ian Dodge, one of the other guest speakers at the festival, agreed with Russell's appraisal that opinions are shifting on marijuana.
"I think attitudes are changing about medical cannabis, hemp and legalizing cannabis in general," Dodge told The Daily Sun. "I truly believe that most people see the failure that is the war on drugs whether it is the cartel war zone that is much Mexico or the fact that all drugs are cheaper and easier to find than ever. The fact that someone like Sen. Rand Paul would support ending the foolish ban on the growing of hemp shows how far things have come. I look forward to working with Sen. Paul in defending the right of the state of Maine to allow the use of medical cannabis, making hemp legal and maybe even seeing a way clear to over-turn the prohibition on the legal sale of cannabis."
Russell said there's still a "philosophical debate" of whether to focus on medical marijuana or, as she endorses, outright legalization of all marijuana. Russell said robberies and addiction rate around prescription drugs offer another compelling case.
"People are getting highly addicted to those and they're also resorting to robberies. ... Prescription drugs are causing far more problems, what if we could rechannel some of the money that we're spending," she wondered.
For more information on Atlantic CannaFEST, visit www.cannafest.webs.com.

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