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Maine Lawmaker Proposes Referendum to Legalize Marijuana
02/21/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A Portland lawmaker wants Maine to become the next state to legalize marijuana. Democratic Rep. Diane Russell says Maine could cut its jail and prison costs by legalizing the drug, and generate millions of dollars annually in state tax revenue. Although some Republican lawmakers are signing on to the bill, which would call for a statewide referendum on the issue, opponents say legalization would take Maine down the wrong path. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Maine's underground marijuana industry has flourished in the state for more nearly 40 years, and state Rep. Diane Russell says it's about time the state regulated and taxed the drug like alcohol or cigarettes.

"It is time we let business owners - Maine business owners - who card their consumers, to earn the profits and not let the drug dealers or the drug cartels earn those profits," Russell said.

With the support of at least one Republican lawmaker, Russell rolled out her plan for legalizing pot at a State House press conference. Under the proposed legislation, Maine could become the third state in the nation to make marijuana legal for adults 21 or older.

If approved by the House and Senate, the legalization question would be left to Maine voters in a statewide referendum for next year's fall ballot. Estimating that Maine's underground marijuana sales are valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Russell predicts that legalization would generate $13 million a year in tax revenue for the state.

"Most people have come out of the closet and been remarkably supportive of the efforts to tax and legalize and regulate marijuana," Russell said. "Many share my concern about preventing young people from having access to it. In fact, a government study, a national study, says that 85 percent of high school seniors are telling us they have easy access to marijuana. That number has not dipped below 82 percent since 1975."

Russell would assess a $50 per ounce excise tax on marijuana growers. The bill would allow personal possession of up to 2.5 ounces of the drug, and prohibit marijuana smoking in public. Republican state Rep. Aaron Libby, of Waterboro, says he likes the economic arguments in Russell's bill.

"As a fiscal conservative, I see great potential for economic growth of removing the prohibition, also the huge amount of state savings that could be then accumulated," Libby said. "Maine agriculture could see a huge boost in marijuana production and also industrial hemp sales."

"I have been working for 20 years on this issue, and this is a great day for me to see it finally coming forward into the light of day," says Dave Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, of Harpswell, is like other marijuana advocates who say the state is wasting it's time incarcerating its citizens for using a drug they claim is less harmful than alcohol. Former Richmond School Superintendent Denny Gallaudet agrees, saying keeping marijuana unregulated only benefits criminals.

"It's really time, I think, to just call it quits on the crime approach, try to bring it into the regulated framework so that cash flow can be diverted to other socially useful services," Gallaudet said.

But law enforcement officers, like Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, say that Maine will simply make a bad drug problem worse by legalizing marijuana. He questions the proponents' references to the numbers of prisoners in the state's jails because of marijuana use.

"Our biggest problem with the people that come in our jail is the use and misuse of alcohol, and legal prescription drugs that are misused and diverted," Gallant says.

House Republican leader Ken Fredette says he could not see the bill passing this session, and Democratic Sen. Stan Gerzovsky, the chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, says enactment of the legislation would be a "tough sell."


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