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Young People's Relaxing Attitudes Toward Pot Concern Portland Referendum Opponents
10/28/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

A Gallup poll out this month shows that 58 percent of Americans support making marijuana legal. That's 8 percentage points higher than a similar poll out two years ago. And it's encouraging news for supporters of a referendum to make marijuana possession legal for adults in Portland. Young peoples' attitudes around pot are relaxing, and that's what has some opponents of legalization so concerned.

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As a high school student, Morgan was so paranoid about her parents finding out about her pot smoking, that she took extra precautions to hide it from them.

"I mean, I used to take the contents of tea bags and I'd take out the staple from the tea bag and I'd empty out the tea," Morgan said. "And then I put very small quantities of marijuana in then I'd staple it back up and that was how I'd hide it from my parents in sock drawer."

But since then, Morgan, who asked that we not use her last name, has come out to her parents about her marijuana use. She sat them down and confided that she is a moderate user who finds therapeutic relief for her chronic back pain without negative side effects, and uses marijuana as an aid to help her sleep.

"My dad just kind of laughed," she said. "He understands, I think. He's been there. My mom just looked like a deer in the headlights. She almost cried. I think she was really, really disappointed. But I felt like it was a necessary thing to do to challenge their views of what a - quote - pot smoker looks like, and what they can accomplish in their life."

These days Morgan is a student at the University of Southern Maine. At 26, she already has one degree in international relations and is now pursuing a different course of study. Morgan said she plans to vote for the local referendum that would allow adults to possess 2.5 ounces of pot.

Maine is one of about a dozen states that have already decriminalized possession of marijuana, which means that people with less than two-and-a-half ounces are not criminally charged, they face only a civil penalty that results in a fine.

Still, Morgan said passage of the referendum in Portland would be more than symbolic, "because it is going against state and federal law. I do think it sends a message to the rest of the state and the rest of the country that people want to see a change with marijuana policy."

According to the latest Gallup poll of more than 1,000 registered voters, only 39 percent of respondents were opposed to legalizing marijuana. And while there is no formal, organized opposition to the Portland referendum, Carol Swicker, project manager of 21 Reasons, has some concerns about it. 21 Reasons' mission is to work with adults to foster a culture that supports drug-free youth.

"I think the biggest risk that we see is that youth's perception of risk and harm will go down," she said. "They'll think that marijuana does not pose any risks to them, and we know that when perception of risk goes down, use goes up."

Swicker said this has been the case in Maine, where state surveys of students show that their use of pot increased beginning in 2011 after passage of a statewide referendum that legalized medical marijuana.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said he doesn't think passage of the referendum will change much for his department. It will still be illegal to sell and distribute marijuana and to use it in public. But Sauschuck agrees that it could be damaging for kids who's brains aren't fully develped until their mid-20s.

"I'm concerned about what kind of message we're sending out to your youth," he said. "We know these kinds of things will directly impact them, and I think it will directly impact them in a negative manner."

"I don't see use going up for those under 21 because this initiative does not set up a place for adults to purchase marijuana," said David Boyer, of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Boyer said if the refendum is approved, it will still be illegal for those under 21 to possess marijuana. And he agrees that the goal should be to keep pot away from young people.

But 19-year-old Tim Heaton said it's too late for that. "On, like, a weekly basis I could see it maybe every day."

Susan Sharon: "Do most of your friends smoke pot?"

Tim Heaton: "Most of them have smoked pot - they don't necessarily still smoke. But most of them have smoked at some point, yeah."

Heaton said he and many of his friends support not only the legalization of marijuana, but also a system to tax and regulate it. And he's convinced such a system will be well established in the United States in the next 25 years.


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