A Vote to Debate: Three voices on marijuana in the elections

The midterm elections were of particular interest to those who follow cannabis policy. Today, we hear from three experts with varying perspectives on how marijuana fared in Maine and across the nation, and what the elections mean for the future of this changing industry.

David Boyer is the Maine Policy Director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). MPP supported efforts to legalize cannabis use for adults in Portland, South Portland, York and Lewiston, and plans to bring a legalization referendum to a state-wide vote in 2016.

Following the passage of one initiative to make marijuana legal in South Portland and the defeat of another in Lewiston, some observers have drawn the conclusion that there is a split in public opinion among Maine voters. While that could be the case — there’s a relatively even split among voters nationwide — the more important takeaway from this year’s election is the shift we’re seeing in public opinion.

It’s incredibly noteworthy that the measure in Lewiston, even though it fell short of passing, received 45 percent at the polls, despite voters being subjected to fear mongering and misinformation about marijuana their entire lives, no exposure to voting on this issue in the past, and last but not least, this was midterm election when turnout is typically smaller, older, and more conservative than the overall electorate. Despite all of this, four out of nine voters cast their ballots in support of making marijuana legal for adults.

This year’s election demonstrated that more people than ever are seeing through the scare tactics and “Reefer Madness” that have kept marijuana illegal for so long. The facts are just too obvious to ignore. As our campaign pointed out repeatedly, marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society. As the percentage of people who learn and appreciate this fact continues to grow, so will support for ending marijuana prohibition.

It’s this type of public dialogue that brings about change. The more people learn and talk to one another about this issue, the more enthusiasm there will be for replacing our failed prohibition laws with a more sensible policy.

That is why our opponents’ latest strategy is to marginalize supporters of marijuana policy reform. In the past, opponents of marijuana legalization wrongly pointed to the issue’s absence from any ballot as evidence that no one in Maine supported it. When 67% of Portland voters approved such a measure last year, they downplayed overwhelming support it received. And when South Portland passed a similar measure, they declared that only people in the Portland area are supportive.

We know that’s not true.

You don’t have to live in southern Maine to understand that marijuana is safer than alcohol. Or to agree that law enforcement officials’ time would be better spent addressing serious crimes instead of adults using the less harmful substance. Or that it makes little sense to force this popular product into an underground market where it is sold by uncontrolled criminal enterprises instead of licensed, taxpaying businesses.

Whether you live in Portland or Presque Isle, the facts remain the same. It’s just a question of whether people know them and how long it takes to appreciate them.

That’s why our campaigns in South Portland and Lewiston were both hugely successful. We won one of them, and thanks to the public discussion they inspired, we will win the other in 2016 when voters across Maine consider a ballot measure to end prohibition and regulate marijuana like alcohol.

Scott M. Gagnon, Master of Public Policy, is the volunteer Director for SAM Maine (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). He is also the Substance Abuse Prevention Manager for Healthy Androscoggin based in Lewiston. Scott also serves on the Governor’s Substance Abuse Services Commission.

While Maine rode the wave that swept Republicans into power, it bucked the trend when it came to marijuana legalization. The legalization ordinance was handily defeated in Lewiston by a 10-point margin. This was the result despite the hundreds of campaign signs, roving billboard, and a full-time paid Marijuana Policy Project employee running the campaign. There were no opposition signs, no opposition ground-game. Our efforts were limited to Op-Eds, speaking to the press, and speaking at forums. So how could this be?

Simply put, the community recognized that marijuana legalization is not the way forward for Lewiston. In 2010 I was part of the Lewiston-Auburn Safe School/Healthy Students Initiative; a four-year project aimed at improving school climate and reducing barriers to education. Substance abuse prevention was a huge part of that, including addressing community norms. A lot of hard work by many in this community had been focused on creating a community environment conducive for learning and thriving. Legalizing marijuana, increasing youth access to marijuana and normalizing the drug is antithetical to this work. This is why the Lewiston School Committee adopted a resolution to oppose marijuana legalization.

This city is often, quite unfairly, maligned in other parts of Maine. The media focuses on fires and crime. But as someone who has worked in this city for 5 years, I can tell you there is strength and resiliency. When faced with adversity and threats, this community comes together like no others. What we saw Tuesday was that strength and resiliency. Lewiston, emphatically, said “No,” we will not have that here. SAM Maine has heard from people in many other Maine communities who feel the same way and are already talking about what they can do proactively for their communities.

When we factor in the very narrow passage of the ordinance in South Portland, it becomes clear that the further away legalization initiatives get from Portland, the less support there is. Legalization advocates enjoyed victories in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. However they lost in Florida. Five communities in Colorado banned retail sales. The narrative of inevitability is pretty shaky when we look at the landscape as a whole. This is most evident now in Maine. What we heard from a majority of the voters on Tuesday is quite simply that this isn’t right for the youth and communities of Maine. The prognosis for legalization passing in 2016 doesn’t look very good at all.

Tim Smale is a founder of Remedy Compassion Center, a Maine dispensary, and is President of the Maine Association of Dispensary Operators (MEADO). MEADO is a trade association representing the eight DHHS-regulated medical cannabis dispensaries.

MEADO watched with interest as the midterm elections saw Alaska, Oregon, and Washington D.C. join Colorado and Washington state in legalizing cannabis for responsible adult use. The implications of legal adult use are important to us, because as a group our first priorities are to work with state regulators to follow the eight guidelines established by the federal government, and to protect and enhance medical cannabis patients’ access to safe, quality product. MEADO supports well-regulated adult use, or legalization, of cannabis in Maine for these reasons:

(1) We believe in ending the war on drug users and educating in order to prevent abuse.  The war on drugs is actually a war on people who use them, and has not stopped the illegal trade across America and especially in Maine.  We have only created a private prison system across the nation, and people of color are more likely to get caught in its snare. Eliminating the safe, responsible possession and use of cannabis is the only way to eliminate it as a crime.

(2)  We believe in allowing adults safe access to cannabis if they choose to use it, while educating all adults on ways to keep it from kids. In fact, the risks associated with early cannabis use create one of the best arguments for why states should create regulated distribution models. Students today say that it is easier to access cannabis than either tobacco or alcohol products—and cannabis is the only one of the three substances that is generally unregulated. Removing the plant from the unregulated black market and requiring ID checks and inventory controls will further protect our kids from early exposure.

(3)  Studies have shown that cannabis is safe for adult use. Humans cannot overdose through cannabis use and, like alcohol, only those who are prone to addiction run the risk of dependency. There are over 20,000 studies on the therapeutic properties of this plant. Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not condone studying cannabis as a help, only as a harm. Therefore, we lack information that would be helpful to the medical community to understand this medicinal herb.

Furthermore, Maine’s current medical cannabis system, while allowing access to some patients with a limited list of qualifying conditions, indiscriminately denies others access. And for patients whose primary care providers refuse to certify qualifying patients, or whose practices discourage certifications, the cost of becoming a legal patient is prohibitive.

Finally, just as the tobacco and alcohol industries have been regulated regarding advertising aimed at children, so too would the cannabis industry. Our highly regulated Maine medical cannabis dispensaries are careful to keep cannabis from children by closely following our regulations, packaging products in ways that deter rather than attract children, offering lock-boxes and education to our members, and never packaging or marketing in ways that would appeal to youth.

MEADO’s member dispensaries and Maine state regulators have set high standards for safe cannabis distribution to medical cannabis patients in this state. We would hope that any responsible adult-use legalization effort would build on the successes of this well-regulated dispensary model.

Wellness Connection of Maine

About Wellness Connection of Maine

Established in 2011, Wellness Connection of Maine operates four state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries in Bath, Brewer, Gardiner and Portland. Our dispensaries are safe, inviting, spacious and accessible wellness centers fusing the best features of a pharmacy, community center and wellness practice in one convenient location. Under one roof, all your medical cannabis and full-spectrum wellness needs are answered by our member liaisons, passionate experts who care and partner with you on your journey to improved quality of life. – Peruse through our extensive library of educational books and magazines. – Enjoy a free coffee/tea and wifi in the comfort of our welcoming community center. – Attend educational events and seminars such as Medical Cannabis 101 or Cooking with Cannabis. – Other services as available, always at no cost to our patients