Rep. Diane Russell defends her bill to legalize recreation marijuana, flanked by David Boyer (left) of the Maine Marijuana Policy Project, and Shenna Bellows of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
Maine is among 18 states to pass referenda legalizing medicinal marijuana, and state Rep. Diane Russell, of Portland, says public attitudes toward the drug continue to shift toward acceptance. Russell and more than 30 other state lawmakers now want Maine to join Washington and Colorado in legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Russell says those who think Maine isn't ready to take the step toward legalization need to get a better handle on what's happening in the state. "The reality is that whether you like legalization -- or you don't -- this issue is coming to our state," Russell said.
Russell's bill would legalize the sale of marijuana for personal consumption for people over 21 years old. Adults could possess up to 2.5 ounces legally, and grow up to six plants. The lawmaker also wants the question of legalization to go out to Maine voters this year in a fall referendum.
The bill establishes a tax rate of $50 per ounce for marijuana sold by licensed marijuana cultivation facilities, which Russell says would generate $13 million in revenue for the state. If her bill is approved by the Legislature and Maine voters, Russell says the state's Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations would regulate sales of the drug.
"They are the best agency, who already understands how the regulations work, how to enforce those types of issues, and I believe it should be under there, and it is my intent to do that," Russell said.
During the day-long public hearing before the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, supporters and opponents sparred over the perceived dangers associated with the use of the drug. David Boyer, of the Maine Marijuana Policy Project, says his group supports studies that conclude pot is objectively safer than alcohol.
"Alcohol use leads to serious disease, overdose deaths and violent behavior, while marijuana does not," Boyer said. "Marijuana is far less toxic and less addictive."
Ashley Ryan is a Portland resident and the current Maine GOP National Committeewoman. She said her views in support of Russell's bill do not reflect the position of the party, but she still thinks the issue is an important one for Republicans.
"As a Republican who believes in the freedom and sovereignty of the individual, this is legislation that I wholeheartedly agree with," she said. "As a fiscal conservative, I'm very concerned about useless government programs that create waste and waste taxpayer dollars, and increase the deficit. The U.S. Department of Health admits that 41 percent of Americans have used marijuana at least once. Simply put, the war on drugs isn't working - any government program that has a 41 percent fail rate shouldn't be going anymore."
But there were plenty of Mainers at the hearing who say the war on drugs must be fought -- regardless of winners and losers. Robert Schwartz represents the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, and his members are convinced marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to deeper and more addictive drug use.
"We beleive the statute threatens the communities already beset by drug abuse, narcotics trafficking," Schwartz said. "Simply put, we feel LD 1229 will undermine the public health and public safety in the state."
Will Neils, of Appleton, joined police in opposing legalizing marijuana for recreational use. As a medical marijuana caregiver, he is concerned that patients who currently enjoy the benefits of Maine's medicinal marijuana law could see their rights eroded, with a more relaxed legalization law that may actually restict their access to the amounts of the drug they need.
Photo by A.J. Higgins.