Medical marijuana access law OK’d

Jeremy Yehle casts his vote at the Hampden Municipal Building on Tuesday. According to town clerk Denise Hodsdon, by about 4:30 p.m., more than 2500 residents had cast their votes, either in person or by absentee ballot, of Hampden's 5800 registered voters. Buy Photo
Jeremy Yehle casts his vote at the Hampden Municipal Building on Tuesday. According to town clerk Denise Hodsdon, by about 4:30 p.m., more than 2500 residents had cast their votes, either in person or by absentee ballot, of Hampden's 5800 registered voters. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 03, 2009, at 10:25 p.m.

Mainers who use marijuana to relieve the symptoms of certain medical conditions will have easier access to the drug after voters approved Question 5 on Tuesday’s statewide referendum ballot.

With 86 percent of precincts reporting at about 1:04 a.m. Wednesday, the measure was winning 58.61 percent to 41.39 percent.

Statewide, the number of votes was 293,694 in favor to 207,419 opposed.

The measure eases access to marijuana for individuals with certain medical conditions. It expands the list of qualifying medical conditions, creates a state-regulated registry of qualified users, and allows for a statewide system of storefront distribution centers.

While 13 states permit medical use of marijuana, only Rhode Island and New Mexico have similar dispensary provisions, according to the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. The national organization on Tuesday night called the Maine vote “a dramatic step forward.”

Maine supporters established a comfortable lead early on and held it throughout the day, although results varied regionally.

By early Wednesday morning, 54.4 percent of voters in Aroostook County had rejected the measure; Penobscot County voters had endorsed it by 50.6 percent; and Cumberland County voters had endorsed it by 67 percent.

Campaign manager Jonathan Leavitt of the organization Maine Citizens for Patient Rights said earlier Tuesday evening that he was confident Mainers would approve the measure.

“This confirms what our polling has told us all along,” he said. Leavitt said he expected some advantage in the southern part of the state, but “only a small percentage.”

Leavitt acknowledged that his group had run a low-profile campaign.

“The credibility of this issue is so strong, we didn’t need to convince anyone that this was the right thing to do,” Leavitt said.

Question 5 was opposed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Maine Prosecutors Association.

Kennebec County District Attorney Evert Fowle, who also is president of the Maine Prosecutors Association, said Tuesday night the measure would prove difficult to enforce because of its complexity and breadth.

“It’s a very poor law,” he said. “This was written by self-proclaimed marijuana activists. … The ultimate goal of the people behind this law is to legalize marijuana.”

Regardless, he added, “We’ll do our best to make this law work and respect the will of the voters.”

The measure also was opposed by the organization Maine Citizens for Medical Marijuana. Spokesman Don LaRouche of Madison, who uses the drug to ease the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and glaucoma, said in an interview last month that government regulation of marijuana would prove intrusive and that a proposed $5,000 registration fee for dispensaries would be a burden for designated growers.

LaRouche said Tuesday night that he didn’t think Maine voters were well-informed about the impact of the new law.

“I’m absolutely ashamed of the state of Maine giving more power to the government,” he said. LaRouche said his organization would begin immediately to work on a proposal to undo some of the provisions of the new law.

Voters leaving the polls Tuesday afternoon expressed a range of viewpoints.

Frank Tolman of Pittsfield, a self-employed salesman, voted against Question 5.

“I don’t want to put the drug dealers out of business,” he said. “The feds are already involved in our banks and our car companies. It’s just a complete takeover. I’m a conservative. The less the government handles, the better.”

Also opposing the measure, but for different reasons, was a voter in Bangor who did not want to be identified.

“I voted no,” he said. “It’s a drug. I mean, what’s next, medical cocaine?”

But Bangor resident Nicholas Barrett, 20, voted in support of the medical marijuana initiative.

“If it helps people out, why not?” he asked. “It’s a medicinal herb; it has its uses.” Barrett, who said he occasionally uses marijuana on a recreational basis, said he was willing to accept the tradeoff that increased therapeutic availability of the drug might lead to increased recreational use.

Karan Savoy of Bangor also supported the measure, although she had heard little about the issue in the lead-up to the referendum.

“It’s probably time to make it more available, especially for older people,” she said. “People will get it one way or another, so it’s good to have some regulations and restrictions.”

A Maine law approved in 1999 by public referendum allowed an individual suffering from one of four specific conditions to grow, possess and use small amounts of marijuana if a physician determines the effect of the drug may be beneficial.

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