AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would let Maine voters decide in a statewide referendum if the state should legalize marijuana for recreational use saw dozens of people testify before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday.

Those who support the law change said prohibition doesn’t work and the country’s 30-year war on drugs has been a failure.

“As a fiscal conservative I’m very concerned about useless government programs that create waste and waste taxpayer dollars and increase the deficit,” Ashley Ryan of Portland told the committee. Ryan is a national committeewoman for the Maine Republican Party.

Ryan said federal government studies show 41 percent of Americans have tried marijuana at least once and she noted that the last three U.S. presidents have all admitted to at least trying marijuana.

“Not only is the war on drugs ineffective, it’s destructive to society, and it’s a costly burden,” Ryan said.

But those who oppose making recreational marijuana use legal said expanding access to addictive drugs would cost the state more than the tax revenue the regulated sale of pot would generate.

“Any plan that will create public safety and health care costs that far outweigh any revenues generated and will diminish workforce capacity is a not a smart plan for Maine,” Scott Gagnon, an Auburn-based substance abuse counselor, told the committee.

Gagnon said alcohol and tobacco abuse cost the country an estimated $428 billion a year, but state and national taxes on those products raise only $14.5 billion a year for the government.

Gagnon and other substance abuse counselors told the committee to think long and hard about normalizing marijuana use. They also said that teen use of marijuana had increased substantially from 2009 to 2011 after Maine’s legalization of medical marijuana.

Many said that very potent marijuana is more readily available to teens and much of it is being diverted from the state’s medical marijuana industry.

Gagnon also said it was unclear how safe or dangerous marijuana was and whether its medical uses were as effective as claimed.

“I strongly believe that any plan that increases access to a harmful and addictive illegal drug, jeopardizing health development of our young people, is not a smart plan for Maine,” he said.

The bill, LD 1229, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, would revamp Maine’s marijuana laws, allowing people age 21 and older to possess as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana legally.

It also establishes an excise tax of $50 per ounce at the wholesale level and a 5 percent sales tax for retail sales. Ten percent of that tax revenue woud be used for regulating sales, 10 percent would go for addiction treatment, 5 percent would fund research on marijuana through 2021, and the balance would go to the state’s general fund.

Russell said the legislatures in Washington and Colorado refused to get ahead of the issue and citizen initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana use that passed in both states in 2012 left lawmakers hurrying to craft workable laws.

“Because they did not believe the referendum was going to pass, they had to scramble to set up legislation after the fact, which created serious gray areas in the meantime, before those regulations took effect,” Russell said.

She said legal marijuana was coming to Maine, either by a referendum set by the Legislature or by a citizen-based initiative. She warned her colleagues they were in a position to set the rules for Maine rather than have those rules set by any special-interest group that was best able to fund a legalization campaign.

Her bill presents the Legislature with an “opportunity to get ahead of this issue and to look at it through the lens of law enforcement, through the lens of parents and teachers and to address the concerns that people have about access to children … but we can actually get control of the market,” Russell said.

She said her bill ultimately leaves the issue up to Maine voters, which she supports.

“I very strongly believe that but I believe they should have a thoughtful regulatory framework to vote on and it should not be put together by people who did not go through a public process like we are doing today,” Russell said.

Russell’s bill imposes the same restrictions that apply to tobacco use and bans smoking marijuana in public places. It makes it legal for individuals to grow as many as six plants if they are cultivated in a locked space.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage, the question would go to voters in November of this year.

Russell previously has attempted to pass legislation that would lead to a legalization referendum and in 2011, that bill was voted ought not to pass in committee. The bill did pick up support from 39 lawmakers on the floor of the House and Senate.

This year Russell has convinced 35 lawmakers to sign on as co-sponsors including three Republicans and tribal representatives from the Penobscot Nation and Houlton Band of Maliseets. Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the Senate chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, also signed on as a co-sponsor.

While dozens testified for the bill, those testifying against it included Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

Schwartz said his association voted unanimously to oppose the legislation. He said if Maine legalizes marijuana, the state would become a magnet for illegal drug dealers from other states who would come here to supply their trade.

“Maine would be a launching pad for illicit marijuana across the Northeast,” Schwartz said.

But Jack Cole, who retired after 26 years with the New Jersey State Police as a detective and who is now the chairman of the national group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said the country’s marijuana policies are terribly flawed and financially ruinous.

His organization does not condone drug use of any type other than for medicinal purposes but Cole said, “We know that drug use will never end for a small percentage of our society.”

“And that use is not dependent on whether the drug of choice is considered legal or illicit,” Cole said. “The goal then should be to create a system acknowledging those facts, while reducing the deleterious aspects of drug use as much as possible.”

He argued that legalizing and regulating marijuana would do more to keep it out of the hands of children than any other action.

Many testifying for the measure refuted the idea that marijuana was a gateway substance that led to more addictive and destructive types of drugs, but Travis Winter, a recovering addict from the Bangor area, had a different story.

Winter told the committee he had been in and out of residential substance abuse treatment for years and was finally clean and had just recently graduated high school. He said those he had lived with in group homes for substance abuse all started the same way — with marijuana.

The committee plans to take the bill up again during a work session May 10.

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.