Pubdate: Thu, 04 Apr 2013
Source: Bangor Daily News (ME)
Copyright: 2013 Bangor Daily News Inc.
Author: Scott Thistle


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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom