Last year, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized the recreational use of pot. Will Maine be the next state to follow suit?
By Jeff Clark
When state representative Diane Russell first decided to introduce a bill last year legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Maine, she feared the reaction from only one quarter — her parents. “My mother is a nurse with a PhD, and she was instrumental in writing a lot of the anti-tobacco laws back in the 1990s,” Russell explains. “I figured she’d worry about secondhand smoke and the effects of smoking it. And my dad’s a truck driver! I thought I knew what he’d say.”
Instead, her parents were cool about it. “My mother said, ‘I don’t think prohibition works.’ My dad’s only comment was, ‘Tax the hell out of it!’ ”
Those two attitudes pretty much sum up a good deal of the reaction to Russell’s effort to legalize marijuana in Maine. From college students to local police chiefs, Russell has encountered little outright opposition to the idea and a good deal of private support.
“One of the big lawyers who lives in my district [Russell represents the Munjoy Hill area of Portland] pulled me aside at the local coffee shop one morning and thanked me for introducing the bill,” she recalls. “I had another person who sells it tell me he wants it legal so he doesn’t have to worry about the IRS anymore. He wants to be able to report that income legally. He’s more scared of the IRS than he is of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).”
Maine has had a medical marijuana law on the books since 1999, but it lacked any mechanism for patients to acquire the drug legally. They could possess it; they just couldn’t buy it without breaking the law. In 2009, Maine voters approved a new measure that allowed the establishment of up to eight nonprofit marijuana dispensaries. It also gave patients the alternatives of growing up to six pot plants themselves or signing over the growing rights to a caregiver.
Russell, who says “I’m a bourbon girl myself,” wants to take the state’s marijuana laws a step further by decriminalizing marijuana completely and treating it essentially like alcohol and tobacco, with licensing of pot sellers and taxation. Her first legalization bill, introduced last year, was legislatively burned to ashes quicker than a badly rolled joint. Few legislators wanted to go on record as supporting a drug that the federal government still lumps with heroin and methamphetamine.
Then in November, voters in Colorado and Washington State passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana. (A poorly worded pot question in Oregon failed.) Suddenly weed had a new cachet.
“I was a little ahead of the curve the first time around,” Russell now admits. In the weeks after the November voting, “I’ve seen a significant culture shift,” she says. “Now people are saying [legalization] is inevitable and we have to prepare, get ahead of the movement. Washington and Colorado really changed the conversation.”
Despite predictions from legislative leaders that this second effort will also fail, Russell has made some changes that might make it more palatable. For one, passage would not immediately legalize marijuana. Instead it would send the question to the voters as a referendum question. Russell argues that it’s important for legislators to pass judgment on the bill first, because the measure establishes an enforcement and taxation system, but voters should have the last word on full legalization. It also gives reluctant legislators political cover, allowing them to say that they are giving the electorate the final decision while laying the foundation for management in case it passes.
“In the first two days I was back in the legislature [in December], everyone was coming up to me asking about the bill,” Russell claims. “I’ve been stunned at the support all across the political spectrum. The conversation has been significantly elevated.”
Observers both inside and outside the medical marijuana community describe Maine’s experience with legal pot thus far as quite smooth. “Part of it has to do with the fact that Maine has good regulations,” notes Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Patients have documentation, and the rules are very clear. I also think Maine law enforcement officers have been doing a good job of not needlessly going after arrests and prosecutions of patients and caregivers. Overall it’s been a very positive relationship.”
Maine’s well-defined law and the associated regulations are also credited with keeping federal law enforcement at bay. Unlike California, where the Drug Enforcement Agency has raided some pot dispensaries and growing sites, Maine has not attracted federal attention. “The federal government has never gone after a doctor or a patient for acting under the auspices of state law,” Melnick points out.
At the state level, “the Maine Legislature has made it clear that they don’t want seriously ill people being prosecuted for possessing medicinal marijuana,” she notes. She cites a recent case where a caregiver’s pot plants were stolen and then recovered by police. “They gave them back to him,” she says.
“From my experience, law enforcement has been shockingly well behaved,” adds Paul McCarrier, the legislative liaison for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a statewide trade association. “They’ve been nothing but polite.” He was aware of only one instance of interaction between a patient or caregiver and law enforcement, and that was primarily focused on a firearms violation.
McCarrier grows plants for several patients, an enterprise that has allowed him to move out of Portland to rural Knox County. He argues that medicinal marijuana is revitalizing the state’s rural economy, generating an estimated seven hundred jobs for electricians, plumbers, nutrient providers, and other small businesses as well as the growers who supply the market. “It’s very difficult to quantify the monetary impact” of the legal marijuana industry in Maine, he allows, “but I think it’s fair to say that it’s in the millions of dollars.” The caregivers association is seeking funding to commission an economic impact study.
Wellness Connection of Maine operates four of the eight dispensaries allowed under the current law. Executive Director Becky DeKeuster, a former Catholic high school teacher, says the shops serve almost 1,700 patients and operate two growing facilities. (She declined to reveal their location for security reasons.)
DeKeuster says the top price for pot in her dispensaries is around three hundred dollars an ounce, with discounts offered for low-income patients. “We have to be careful not to incentivize diversion,” she explains. “Our price is low enough in some cases that it could be sold on the street for more.” Other forms, such as tinctures and baked goods, are also available.
“We would love to see marijuana legalized,” DeKeuster says, although she was unsure how it would affect her nonprofit’s business. “A lot would depend on how the law was written. I would hope that medicinal marijuana wouldn’t be taxed.”
McCarrier isn’t prepared to say what the effect of full legalization of marijuana would have. “A lot depends on what happens in Colorado and Washington,” he points out. He worries that it could attract large multinational companies if Maine’s law isn’t carefully written.
“A lot of education has to be done about legal marijuana,” adds Melnick, “but that’s achievable. The evidence is very supportive of legalization, no matter what argument you use.”
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, says he believes his membership would oppose legalization. “The [chiefs] I’ve talked to don’t support legalization,” Schwartz says. “First, marijuana is still against federal law. That creates a significant conflict. Second, there is no concrete information that it’s a good drug or a necessity. [Legalization] is not anything we’re prepared to support.”
Schwartz adds that his membership is concerned that legalization would increase access to young people, “just as we see with alcohol today.” He also points out that determining if a driver were operating under the influence of pot would be difficult until new tests were developed. “I’m not aware of anyone [in his organization] who supports the concept, much less the bill itself.”
The position wouldn’t be universal, counters Representative Russell, recalling a recent forum in Farmington where the local police chief expressed support for legalization.
Russell, Melnick, and others say that the usual arguments trotted out to oppose marijuana lack a basis in reality. The idea that legal marijuana will result in expanding access among young people ignores the fact that pot is already widely available. Legalizing marijuana could have the opposite effect, making pot more difficult for teens to buy.
“Drug dealers don’t card their customers,” Russell points out. “Legal marijuana distributors would, just like we do now for alcohol.”
A 2011 study by the National Institutes of Health found about 25 percent of the 46,000 teenagers surveyed nationally reported using marijuana in the previous year. A 2011 study by the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., found that lifetime marijuana use among Maine teens had actually dropped between 1997 and 2009, from 50.7 percent to 36.2 percent, while use in the previous thirty days had dropped from 30.4 percent in 1997 to 20.5 in 2009.
The “gateway drug” argument also doesn’t move legalization proponents. They point out that marijuana buyers are exposed to other drugs only because recreational marijuana is illegal and thus travels in the same company with heroin, Oxycontin, and cocaine among drug dealers. As a legal substance, marijuana would leave its old companions behind.
Those arguments might not be enough to move legislators to approve Russell’s bill. She predicts that failure would inevitably lead to a petition drive to put the question on the ballot. Maine is already attracting attention from national marijuana legalization organizations that are willing to help, she says. She would far prefer that the legislature send it to referendum, though, so that a regulatory framework is in place pending voter approval. “Colorado is a good example of the opposite happening,” she notes. “They weren’t prepared, they have a very short time to get a system in place, and it shows.”
Russell is convinced that the time is right for a new approach to marijuana and the failed War on Drugs. “When the first [medical marijuana] referendum passed in 1999, people said the sky was going to fall, and it didn’t,” she says. “When the second referendum passed in 2009, people said the sky was going to fall, and it’s still up there. It isn’t going to fall this time, either.”
Jeff Clark is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in Down East since 1985. He lives in Bath with his wife.