The state's medical-marijuana laws, which govern how patients can access pot for medical purposes, is on the brink of significant change. The question is, will lawmakers have the guts to make that change? Or will it be up to the people of Maine?
There's a bill before the Maine Legislature that would create medical-marijuana dispensaries to legally grow and distribute pot to those patients whose doctors have recommended it. Those patients would also be issued identification cards showing that they have the right to possess medical marijuana, according to a provision in the bill. Medical marijuana is currently permissible in Maine, but advocates say it's nearly impossible to navigate the system legally — for growers and patients alike. The Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services (co-chaired by medi-mari supporter and Portland Democratic senator Joseph Brannigan) heard testimony on the bill earlier this week. If passed out of committee (this could happen on April 15), it would go to a legislative floor vote; lawmakers could opt to send the question to Maine voters (this would inspire some amount of déjà vu, seeing as citizens approved a medi-mari bill in 1999). Advocates are prepared for that outcome, and point to the 70,000-plus signatures — which they collected to place the question on the 2009 ballot — as evidence of the public's support.
At Monday's hearing, Jonathan Leavitt of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative argued in front of the health and human services committee that it was up to elected officials to address this issue.
"We've done our legwork on this," Leavitt said on the phone Tuesday, referring to tens of thousands of signatures that MMPI and the group Maine Citizens for Patients' Rights collected in favor of changing Maine's medi-mari laws. He urged the Legislature to "save us all a lot of time and energy and pass this bill." But, "my experience generally is that our elected officials are way behind the curve ... certainly on issues that they view as somehow controversial. We're hoping they'll recognize that this is not a controversial issue." To back up that claim, he points to the gender balance, geographic diversity, and sheer volume among initiative supporters.
Leavitt also notes that US Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated that when it comes to medical marijuana, federal policy is now to defer to states' rights.
Opponents of the proposed law, namely the state's Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Health and Human Services, say that dispensaries would be too difficult to monitor. They point to California, where the existence of such distributors has allegedly (according to medi-mari opponents, at least) led to increased crime. But Charles Wynott, a Westbrook resident and AIDS patient who heads the Maine Medical Marijuana Resource Center, suggests that police officers prepare for what he sees as the inevitable.
"They're just saying no, no, no, no," he says of state law enforcement officials. "They're not even doing any brainstorming. We are. We're prepared. They have to be ready for it to pass — we want to hit the ground running when this thing happens and say: Now we can get the medicine to the people."
To celebrate their signature-collection success, and to gear up for a potential legislative or statewide initiative campaign, patient-pot supporters will gather at Empire Dine and Dance on their national holiday, 4/20, for some music and socialization. The event, which begins at (shocker!) 4:20 pm, will feature live rock, reggae, and hip-hop bands, along with public education and networking opportunities. Visit mainecommonsense.org for more info.