With a marijuana legalization proposal on the horizon and a medical cannabis program that continues to evolve, Maine is an active participant in the country's pot revolution. Last week, after voters in Colorado and Washington passed bills to abolish marijuana prohibition, state representative Diane Russell, a Democrat from Portland, announced her intent to introduce a treat-pot-like-alcohol bill in the next legislative session. (A similar bill was also announced in Rhode Island.) Meanwhile, as Massachusetts became the 18th state to legalize weed for medicinal use, advocates in Maine are working to improve our own approach to medical marijuana even after losing an important ally in Augusta.
The third-most-popular recreational drug in the United States (behind alcohol and tobacco), the drug that 50 percent of Americans believe should be made legal, is undergoing major image rehab. We no longer think that pot use leads to violent criminal behavior or irrational sexual desires, as Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the 1930s, did. Fourteen states have passed some sort of marijuana-decriminalization law, meaning no prison time or criminal record for someone caught with a small amount of weed for personal consumption. We've come a long way since Reefer Madness.
"Reformers are buoyant, and well they should be," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, the Washington DC-based organization working to repeal marijuana prohibition nationwide. The confluence of science and popular opinion, he says, would appear to be pushing more reticent entities "toward a more rational and pragmatic area."
That said, the crystal ball is pretty muddy. No one knows how the federal government — which still considers marijuana a "Schedule 1" substance, in the same class as heroin, meaning it has high potential for abuse and no medical value — will respond to the new laws out West. Technically, every sale of pot in every state (whether for recreational or medical use) is a federal crime. As a result, half of this country's drug-related arrests (more than 850,000 in 2010) are related to small-potatoes pot violations, 88 percent of those for mere possession. Some of these arrests have happened in states with medical or decriminalization laws. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that marijuana legalization would save $7.7 billion per year in law enforcement costs.
Earlier this month, 19 members of Congress including Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) called on US Attorney General Eric Holder and Michele Leonhart, of the Drug Enforcement Administration, to back off.
"These states have chosen to move from a drug policy that spends millions of dollars turning ordinary Americans into criminals toward one that will tightly regulate the use of marijuana while raising tax revenue to support cash-strapped state and local governments," the letter reads. "[W]e ask that your Departments take no enforcement action against anyone who acts in compliance with the laws of Colorado, Washington and any other states that choose to regulate access to marijuana for medicinal or personal use."
Unlike in other places, where medical marijuana users and providers have found themselves vulnerable to federal investigation and prosecution, Maine has been lucky to dodge the wrath of the Department of Justice and the DEA — so far.
"They appear to be going after the folks who are in states where there is less regulation than Maine has," says Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. In crafting and enforcing our medi-mari law, Mainers avoided "the types of things that seem to be triggering federal scrutiny," including huge billboards (as in Montana) or hodge-podge municipal policies (as in California). "The vast majority of stories I've heard about encounters with law enforcement [in Maine] have been positive," Melnick says.
But there remains ample room for improvement here. And as with the rest of the country, Maine's marijuana landscape is still very much in flux.