AUGUSTA, Maine — Two Democratic legislators from Portland on Wednesday introduced their bills to legalize adult recreational marijuana use, saying the state should accept their presumption that weed is here to stay.
The question, they said, is how society should deal with that fact — continue to outlaw marijuana or attempt to regulate it the same way society regulates the legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol.
“As a former police officer, we know that this war was lost a long time ago,” said Rep. Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff and one of the lawmakers pushing legalization. Speaking during a public hearing on the two bills in the Criminal Justice Committee, he said society should treat marijuana the same way it treats alcohol — by encouraging responsible use and seeking to help those for whom responsible use is impossible.
“We don’t criminalize people if they choose to consume [alcohol or tobacco], but what we can do is try to manage those consumption patterns,” he said.
Dion and his counterpart, Rep. Diane Russell, both said their bills were more necessary than ever because of grassroots efforts to put marijuana legalization on the ballot via citizens initiative in 2016.
“By planning ahead, we can inoculate ourselves from having to scramble to put policies in place after the fact,” Russell said. “This is the responsible path forward and the last time it will be available to us as a tool.”
Russell’s bill, LD 1380, and Dion’s, LD 1401, would both legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana by adults over 21 years old, and establish a legal framework for the retail sales and taxation of pot. There are differences between the bills, but the two lawmakers said they were working to combine their efforts.
Proponents of legalization say that by taking marijuana out of the black market, it will prevent needless investigation, prosecution and incarceration. That will allow the state to focus on more dangerous drugs and other crimes — not to mention open a new tax revenue stream for the state.
Russell and Dion talked about legalization as a sort of inevitability. Four states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana use by adults, and efforts are underway in five more. In Maine, Portland and South Portland have both passed ordinances at the ballot to legalize marijuana.
Dion told the lawmakers that each of them likely knew adults who used marijuana, with nary a negative consequence.
“How many of us here, who look normal, have engaged in consuming those drugs and can move forward?” he said. “There are a lot of people in your communities who can tell stories of their experience with these drugs, who have no problem.”
That may be true, but it misses the point, said Scott Gagnon, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, a group opposed to legalization.
“With any drug — alcohol, tobacco, marijuana — there are certainly adults who can use it without having any problems. But you’ll find that with harder drugs as well,” he said in an interview.
The concern of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, he said, is the overall effect that a thriving commercial marijuana industry would have on the overall health and well-being of the state — particularly young people.
In states where recreational marijuana is legal, the industry has created and sold marijuana candies, soft drinks, chocolates and other products that Gagnon said were marketed toward children.
“This is what parents, educators and employers would have to contend with as they try to keep their homes, schools and workplaces safe for all,” he said in testimony to the committee.
The Maine Public Health Association, Maine Medical Association and Communities Against Substance Abuse all oppose the bills as well. So does the American Academy of Pediatrics, which cited research indicating that marijuana had adverse effects on developing brains.
Gov. Paul LePage’s administration also opposes the bills, as does the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, which said Wednesday that the state’s efforts “must be focused on reducing drug use so that an individual’s full potential is achievable.”
While Wednesday’s meeting was reserved for public comment, some members of the committee did indicate their inclination regarding marijuana legalization. Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, had pointed questions for Russell.
“Just because we can do this, as a society, should we?” he said. “Why would we want to encourage smoking? Can’t people find something else to do that’s fun and more productive with their time? Why do we need to add another thing to the list of substances we can do?”
Russell said the issue at hand is one of personal choice.
“I drink bourbon. I drink a fair amount of bourbon. I don’t drink enough that it causes a problem. But there are people out there who can’t hold their bourbon,” she said. “But we tried prohibition, and it failed. I don’t think we should be putting moral judgments on what people choose to put into their body, or not.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.