State Rep. Diane Russell, of Portland, introduces her measure to legalize marijuana in Maine.
What Portland voters have said, in effect, according to Rep. Russell, is that the policies of prohibition aren't working.
"And it was a clear statement that people are ready to tax and regulate marijuana like the commodity that it already is," Russell said at a Portland news conference.
Russell's bill would impose a 10 percent sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana, with a minimum excise tax of $1.50 per gram. Under the measure, some of those funds would be allocated to prevent marijuana use among young people.
"We believe that a one-size-fits-all approach has not worked to protect our children," Russell said. "It has not served our budget constraints. And it has not stemmed addiction. We believe it is time for a local approach with some Yankee ingenuity."
Russell says the tax revenues brought in from pot sales could also pay for other state needs, including school construction. That idea has support from Denny Gallaudet, the former president of Casco Northern Bank and a retired school superintendent from Richmond.
Gallaudet says those working wtih high school kids sense that the "war on drugs" approach isn't working. But he says specifics can be hard to nail down.
"The kids cannot talk to you, or deal with you, because the consequences in the school setting are very harsh for young people - suspension, and so on and so forth," Gallaudet said. "There are very few clinical studies on what works to help kids stop any addiction to - or predilection to - drugs. Because marijuana is illegal, the scientific community can't really study it carefully."
Russell brought out several medical marijuana users to pledge their support, citing their belief that it would improve access, and possibly lower costs, for patients who rely on prescription marijuana.
"I'm stoned right now. And I'm not afraid to say it," said Maine Air National Guard veteran Theo Welton (right, at podium). Welton says he was working with a crew in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2005 that struck an underground power line. It left Welton with recurring pain and nausea that he says he controls with marijuana.
"I don't get off in the clouds anymore because I'm used to it," he said. "But it really takes care of my pain, takes care of my nausea, allows me to present myself in a clear way. And I've never been smarter."
But Paul McCarrier of the Maine Caregivers Association, which also represents medical marijuana patients statewide, says his group is strongly opposed to Russell's bill, as it could threaten to undo the system that's in place, and create an underground market for marijuana.
"With the level of tax that they're suggesting on marijuana, including having a minimum amount per gram, all that will do is encourage a black market in this state and will drive up the costs for marijuana producers in general," McCarrier says.
And the Maine coordinator for a national group opposed to legalizing marijuana says such laws could establish big marijuana, similar to big tobacco. Scott Gagnon is with Smart Approaches to Marijuana - or SAM.
"One of our big concerns is allowing big marijuana to set up in Maine. How is that going to impact the usage of marijuana amongst our youth? How is that going to increase access and availability - having those negative consquences and risks to our youth?"
But Russell says her bill would establish an educational campaign designed to reduce marijuana consumption, and that by legalizing, kids wouldn't be going to drug dealers, and instead would be carded, and turned away by licensed sellers.
Irwin Gratz contributed reporting and writing to this story.
Photos: Irwin Gratz