As support for ending marijuana prohibition continues to grow among voters, institutions that had remained silent on the issue are increasingly expressing their agreement. In an audacious move that some would call long overdue, The New York Times published a series of editorials last week exploring many facets of the government’s war on marijuana, exposing the failures of prohibition and the need to regulate this comparatively safe substance in a manner similar to alcohol.
The importance of The Times coming out in favor of legalization cannot be overstated, and it dovetails with the work being carried out by dedicated activists at the local level throughout Maine.
Last year, 67 percent of voters in Portland decided to stop penalizing adults for possession of small amounts of marijuana, directing law enforcement to stop wasting time going after people for using a substance that is safer than alcohol. Now, three more Maine cities are likely to vote on a similar ordinance.
Voters in York, South Portland and Lewiston will likely decide whether to remove all penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years of age or older. These measures will continue the public dialogue that Portland’s 2013 campaign started and they will further educate the public about the issue.
If the local initiatives are approved, police can respect the will of the voters by exercising their discretion and refraining from citing and prosecuting adults for possession. They will maintain the ability to enforce the state’s marijuana possession law, but it is by no means required. Just as an officer can choose not to stop someone for driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, they could choose not to cite an adult for marijuana possession.
These local campaigns prompted the Portland Press Herald to write its own editorial, calling on the Maine legislature to pass a statewide law next session, before a looming 2016 initiative is sent to voters. In a July 31st letter, the Press Herald’s editorial board said, “The state can craft a law that maximizes tax revenue and regulates distribution to minors, or it can see what the marijuana growers and legalization activists come up with.” The Press Herald expects that a statewide initiative would pass and Mainers would be best served by having this issue addressed through the legislative process.
The measures present a significant step forward, but they are not a final solution to the marijuana prohibition problem because they do not provide for a legal source of marijuana. They will, however, foster support for a more comprehensive state law that would regulate and tax marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. While simple possession does not typically result in jail time, cultivation and sale of marijuana remain criminal charges with severe consequences. Under the current system, illegal marijuana sales directly benefit an illicit market run by potentially dangerous criminals. Regulating the substance will allow the market to be overseen by government regulators and controlled by legitimate businesses that have a vested interest in making sure the best practices of the industry are being followed.
Maine’s medical marijuana system – a system that has successfully regulated marijuana for qualifying patients – was recently ranked the top in the nation by Americans for Safe Access (a national non-profit advocacy organization). There is no reason we can’t expand on this successful system to accommodate adults 21 and older.
A regulated, legal marijuana industry can address many issues, such as quality control and product safety, while creating jobs and generating tax revenue. Most importantly, it will produce a safer environment for consumers, producers, and the broader community.