Legalizing marijuana: ‘The war’s over’
FARMINGTON - Unveiled tonight before a crowd of 100 or so at the forum Marijuana in Maine held at the University of Maine at Farmington was the state's first bill proposed to fully legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.
When state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, held up her 22-page draft and announced its intent, the audience applauded. "As of today, I've drafted the first bill in Maine to legalize marijuana," Russell said during the discussion that included Maine Attorney General William J. Schneider, Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck, Jr., state Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, state Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington and Peter Christ, a retired police captain of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which supports the legalization and regulation of all drugs.
Harvell initiated the idea of a forum, which the Daily Bulldog co-sponsored with UMF's Pre-Law Program, to focus on Maine's current medicinal marijuana law, its flaws and where lawmakers should go from here. A 59 percent majority passed the citizen's referendum in 2009 that expanded the medicinal marijuana law in Maine to include pot dispensaries. The first facility opened last week in Frenchville near the Canadian border.
"People have legalized it and the government has recognized it," Harvell said, adding that in continuing to fight the war against marijuana use, we "may lose the war against harder drugs. I feel we need to shift our focus and resources." On Thursday, two bills sponsored by Ben Chipman, U-Portland, who could not attend the forum, sought to reduce penalties for possession but were unanimously rejected by the Legislature's Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, which effectively killed the bills.
Maine Attorney General Schneider explained Maine's current medicinal marijuana law as being "layered on top of Maine's criminal statutes (possession, furnishing, trafficking and cultivation) and on top that, federal law (which bans all marijuana use)," he said. The bottom line, he said, is that "federal law is always enforceable in Maine."
Police Chief Jack Peck said marijuana enforcement in Farmington isn't "a great priority." Last year, the 22 pot possession cases were either dismissed or resolved with a fine of a couple of hundred dollars. "There were no convictions in last five years for pot cultivation.
The new expanded medicinal marijuana dispensary law "is a little confusing for us," Peck admitted, adding he's never even seen a identification card allowing for marijuana prescriptive use. At that, an audience member jumped up and pulled a card out for Peck to a get a look at it.
Sanderson has introduced LD 1296 – “An Act To Amend the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act To Protect Patient Privacy.” The bill seeks to amend the state’s medical marijuana law and includes eliminating the requirement that patients register with the state.
"We're hoping to clean up the law. It's not about marijuana, it's about your rights," Sanderson said. She referred to the law's original intent of "voluntary registration" that was amended by the Legislature to mandate the medical information of registrants go into a data base at the state's Department of Health and Human Services. Her proposed bill includes a provision to keep those records from being released to federal law enforcement. She also objected to the fees attached for both patient and caregivers to register with the state. LD 1296 will probably go to public hearing next month, she said afterward.
Sanderson said she is "not necessarily a proponent of completely legalizing marijuana" and advised those growing it for medicinal use to work with local law enforcement by inviting police to see their growing operation.
Russell argued for legalizing pot outright, providing regulations for use and attaching a 7 percent sales tax on it. Keeping pot illegal is "creating crime by creating a black market," she said. "We are already in defiance of the federal government," she added. Her bill could go to public hearing next month, she said later.
Christ said current drug laws "put police between you and your doctor." Instead of making drugs illegal, he said regulation works. He gave the example of alcohol regulation as one that could work for all drugs.
"Here's a shocker; prohibition doesn't work," Christ said, adding prohibition "creates crime and violence."
Schneider said if Maine were to completely legalize marijuana, federal law would still hold sway over the state and it's likely that where large amounts of marijuana activity is perceived would probably result in bringing the feds to prosecute it.
"As a society we'd be better off if it's legalized," Peck said. "I never fought with anyone stoned. I've never been to a marijuana overdose."
Sanderson said if a citizen's referendum was passed to legalize marijuana, she'd support the voters' decision. But, she warned, "we'd have to be careful how we legalize it."
"Whatever the voters decide, we'll enforce it," Peck said. However, he added, he didn't agree with the idea of legalizing opiates. "I've seen the heart break. I've cried with some of the parents."
Schneider said he was "shocked" at the suggestion of legalizing all drugs without giving any suggestions for how to regulate it," as Christ had suggested earlier.
"We need to shift our focus away from this fight (against marijuana use). This war's over and we need to find a way out of it," Harvell said.