Published Date Written by David CarkhuffMarijuana legalization resembles a speeding train that will overtake Maine residents if lawmakers don't act, according to Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who is the sponsor of a bill to set up a structure for regulating marijuana and requiring a public vote to legalize marijuana.
"The reason I introduced this bill two years ago and a modified version this year is because the train is coming, and we have a responsibility to get ahead of this issue," Russell said Saturday during a public forum in Bath regarding pros and cons of her legislation.
At last count, 35 state lawmakers are listed as co-sponsors of LD 1229, an "Act to Tax and Regulate Marijuana," sponsored by Russell, of Munjoy Hill. The bill would legalize the possession and use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, according to the bill summary, and limit personal use to 2.5 ounces and six plants. The proposed law would still prohibit smoking marijuana in public places. Maine residents would still have the final say on whether to allow the legalization of marijuana through a citizen referendum. If state lawmakers approve the bill this session, it will be referred to voters in November, Russell noted. If approved by public vote, people over the age of 21 could purchase marijuana, and the state would assess a $50-per-ounce excise tax on the product.
Colorado and Washington have decriminalized marijuana recently, noted State Rep. Jennifer DeChant, D-Bath, who moderated Saturday's forum. She also pointed to Maine's medical marijuana program, instituted in 1999.
"Maine is already in the business of regulating and having marijuana available at least for medical purposes," she said.
Peter Alexander, the lead organizer of the forum, argued that legalization could reverse a cost dynamic in Maine.
"Incarcerating people for non-violent drug offenses is incredibly costly — about $13 million per year in Maine alone—and the cost in ruined lives and traumatized families cannot even be estimated. Regulating and taxing marijuana solves a lot of problems and will generate revenues instead of costing tax-payers millions each year," he said.
Russell said her bill is about establishing a structure before the issue overtakes the state. In 2009, 59 percent of Maine voters supported an initiative to create medical marijuana dispensaries, evidence of a "stunning cultural shift," she said.
Essentially, we would have control over the market. Right now, when people choose to consume marijuana, they are forced to go to drug dealers if they do not have a medical prescription.
"It is the drug dealer that is the gateway," who can "upsell" customers to harder drugs, Russell argued.
"Prohibition for alcohol started in Portland, Maine. ... and it hadn't even gotten out of the gate, and Neal Dow, the mayor at the time, had taken all of the whiskey, put it in the basement of City Hall, and guess what happened? Portland people wanted their whiskey. So we have in our history in Portland the Whiskey Rebellion," Russell said, comparing prohibition of alcohol to the current federal policy making marijuana illegal (In Maine, marijuana already has been decriminalized, meaning possession of less than 2.5 ounces is a civil violation, punishable by a fine.)
"We have no control of the market right now," Russell said.
"Eighty-five percent of high school seniors are saying they have easy access to marijuana right now," she said. "That number has not dipped below 82 percent since 1975. The War on Drugs started in 1971. If any other government program had an 85 percent failure rate, we would be having a rational conversation about what the next step should be."
But Sheriff Joel Merry of Sagadahoc County, another speaker at Saturday's forum, cautioned against unintended consequences.
Merry warned that experience in Colorado and Washington, where prices plunged following legalization, showed that new problems can emerge. Merry, whose experience includes serving as Lt. Police Chief of Bath and outreach coordinator at the YMCA, involved in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, said he worried mostly about young people.
Merry said he worked as a de facto school resource officer and as an athletic coach, and said, "It's not so much that I stand behind a badge and an institution of law enforcement and the criminal justice system that says, 'We should oppose this because, well, we always have. Yeah, that's a good reason.' That's not a good reason."
Also, Merry said, "I don't want to stand up here and argue the merits of Prohibition."
Rather, he said, marijuana is "a young person's drug," based on surveys and studies, and the public should be informed of its dangers.
"The regular use of marijuana does kill brain cells, particularly at a young age," Merry said.
"I'm not convinced that legalizing marijuana is going to keep it out of our schools and out of the hands of our children, and that provides a great concern to me," he said.
An excise tax could cause unintended consequences of greater illicit growing operations, Merry warned.
"What's going to happen to the black market? Here we go again. All you have to do, we know that, is in your basement you put up some lights and you bring in a hydrating system and you grow them," he said.
Merry also challenged the notion that Maine will accrue great savings in the criminal justice system.
"I would counter anyone who thinks that our jails are filled with people for non-violent drug offenses. I don't see that in the state of Maine. So the idea that there will be great cost savings because we will not be incarcerating people for non-violent crimes, drug-related offenses. ... They're filled with people who have committed a lot of other crimes while under the influence of drugs or in search of money for drugs, that's what's filling our jails," he said.
Prescription drugs, a highly regulated, legal substance, "are filling our jails," Merry said.
Taxation doesn't keep up with the social costs of alcohol and tobacco use, Merry added, and the same could be true with marijuana.
In 2012, about 7 percent of the adult population used marijuana on a regular basis, according to surveys; but the number jumps to 18 percent when focusing on 18- to 25-year-olds, Merry said.
Finally, with medical marijuana, the black market has gained an opening through cultivation for licensed patients, Merry argued.
"What we're seeing is an abuse of that law. So they're entitled to grow six plants. More and more we're finding people with cards who can legally grow marijuana, but they're not growing six plants, they have 60 plants, they have 70 plants, in some cases over 100. So they're still violating the law," he said.
Eric Haram, director of outpatient behavioral health for MidCoast Hospital, said the picture is murkier when it comes to drug treatment.
Substance abuse often involves more than one drug, he said.
"Often it's not one thing or another but it's kind of a cocktail," Haram said.
"Really what we're talking about is the current demand on the treatment system with people who are in trouble with using marijuana," Haram said, saying marijuana "is really the second highest substance of choice that people are seeking treatment for, for adults; and for kids, it's the primary substance of use that people are looking for help to stop their dependence and addiction."