Recent discussions about legalizing marijuana in Maine are shortsighted in that they do not consider the pervasive damage caused by immoderate and excessive use of this drug. Nor do they take the simple step from legalizing marijuana to fully understanding the problems associated with drug legalization. As a former drug researcher, as a dean of students, as a parent and as a citizen of Bangor, I have learned that the problem is complicated.

As real examples, we all see increased police activity necessary to deal with drugs and their related debris field across the state. In my work, I have seen massive and crushing drug problems evolve in people who only used marijuana. These people — good, every one of them — were often lulled into use by the belief that a naturally occurring substance so widely discussed and so often presented in a confused manner would be a safe way to alter reality and escape from life.

However, the reality for many is a lifetime of dependence on the drug, leading to reduced potential, lost opportunity and a life lived in the haze of intoxication.

We need to honestly acknowledge that for every person dangerously involved with drugs, that abuse always began by experimenting with a substance thought to be less risky. It is often the case that marijuana is the gateway drug, and confronting the fact that we have a drug problem and we need to do something immediately — beyond the simple reflex of “legalizing” — is necessary if our sons and daughters are to be effectively protected.

Drugs like heroin and bath salts are a new scourge on the drug scene, but marijuana has been a large problem for years, and we cannot safely give way to the drugs that some argue are safe, when in fact they have a huge abuse potential and have a record of causing major problems for users.

We need to be vigilant of the big picture of struggling kids who seek easy meaning and simple solutions to life’s problems by abusing all kinds of substances. If we get focused on the big picture and work toward a comprehensive solution to the problem, Maine’s drug problem will get better.

State studies show that alcohol, marijuana and drugs like Ecstasy are frequently abused. However, these realities have not sufficiently moved us to initiate a comprehensive, sustained and systematic approach to drug abuse prevention.

Instead, now 35 legislators and many special interest groups are saying: Let’s not deal with the harsh realities; let’s not deal with the complexities; let’s not work to rid Maine of drugs of abuse. Instead, let’s take the easy way out and make legal a substance that has caused great pain and sadness for thousands upon thousands of Mainers.

Stopping the problem requires a comprehensive approach. If we acknowledge that drug use — in all its forms — is here, and it is something we can confront, then we can begin managing this problem. Change for the better, and decreasing the costs of substance abuse, will occur if each one of us demands action on this issue.

What can we do as ordinary citizens?

  1. Enact community standards against the abusive use of all drugs and unite to eliminate risk factors for substance abuse, including the lack of engaging and exciting alternatives to substance abuse in our towns and cities. In some communities, this could be as simple as establishing neighborhood associations or a teen center.
  2. Support an increase in police efforts to curb illegal drug sales. Instead of slashing enforcement budgets and arguing for legalization, we should dramatically increase the number of drug agents. If we say these behaviors are not tolerated, and we put our money where are mouths are, our communities will benefit. Money invested here will pay rich dividends in the future.
  3. Participate in the lives of our children by talking, getting involved at school and engaging in community forums aimed at the creation of caring communities, where kids can grow into capable, competent and involved young people.
  4. Undertake a full-scale prevention effort in this state. By stopping the problem before it begins, we will be most effective.

This is a complex problem. But, together, we can have a huge impact on how our children live and how our communities thrive or die. Let’s look at the whole picture — start at the beginning — and keep working, even when the task seems too big. As Mainers, we are strong enough and smart enough to make this a place where life really is the way it should be.

Please join me in calling on our elected leaders, service agencies, civic leaders, schools and neighbors to begin a sustained and honest approach to solving this problem. Legalizing marijuana is not the answer. This is obvious when one looks at the horrible consequences nationwide from the misuse and abuse of other legally available drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs. Let’s ask for and expect community-based initiatives. Our actions are important. Our kids’ lives and the success of our communities depend on it.

Dr. Robert Dana of Bangor has been a substance abuse researcher and treatment provider, and he is the dean of students at the University of Maine.