AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate on Monday snuffed any chance that the state’s voters would decide at the ballot box this year whether to make marijuana legal for recreational use.
The Senate voted 24-10 Monday morning against sending the question to this November’s ballot. That followed a vote Friday in the House of Representatives where the measure fell four votes short of passage. The measure stemmed from LD 1229, which was sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who proposed a system of regulating and taxing the drug. After a clear majority of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee opposed that plan, lawmakers who voted in the minority moved forward with an amendment calling for a referendum that would send voters a straight up-or-down question on whether the state should craft rules to allow recreational use of marijuana. The Senate debated that question Monday.
While some senators argued that the Legislature should act before the issue is forced upon lawmakers by a citizen initiative, others made it clear that they don’t want their votes recorded as paving the way to legalized pot.
“We need to get ahead of this issue,” said Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, noting that gambling and alcohol are addictive, but allowed and regulated in Maine. She argued that the question posed by LD 1229 would give legislators better control of rulemaking than a citizen initiative would.
Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said the decision should be left to the Maine people.
“This bill doesn’t propose legalizing marijuana,” said Plummer. “I think it’s important to ask people their opinion.”
While some argued that legalizing marijuana would lead to more people becoming addicted to harder drugs, Plummer rejected that notion.
“It’s a gateway drug because the same people selling it are selling other drugs,” said Plummer. “I have more confidence in our government than in a drug dealer.”
Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, said legalizing marijuana would pose a challenge for parents trying to keep their kids off the drug, but no more challenge than they face regarding alcohol or tobacco use.
“Simply by not allowing it to a vote or allowing it to be legal doesn’t change those conversations,” said Cleveland. “I’d ask you to seriously consider what the better outcome is. … Trust the people of Maine to make a reasonable decision on this.”
But the arguments against the bill were passionate and numerous, including from at least one of its co-sponsors, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.
“You can’t charge a tax on something that’s federally illegal,” said Gerzofsky. “Who’s going to say what I have in a pouch came from my backyard or someone else’s backyard, or a store?”
Gerzofsky said that he fears legalizing marijuana for recreational use could lead the federal government to crack down on the state’s medical marijuana law. That law is already at odds with the federal government, which considers the use of marijuana for any reason illegal.
“I don’t want to jeopardize what we do have for the people who need it very badly,” he said. “We’re being allowed to do that because we’re regulating it and we’re overseeing it. Let the people send it to us. Let’s get a clear message from the people and then we’ll deal with it.”
The Legislature’s refusal to put the question on the ballot may well end up a moot point. A group called the Marijuana Policy Project has said it plans to collect enough signatures to put the question on the ballot in November 2016.
Another marijuana-related bill received strong support in the House on Monday. Lawmakers voted 105-35 in favor of LD 1062, a measure that would add new medical conditions as qualifications for medical marijuana use. The bill, which faces more votes in the House and Senate, adds post-traumatic stress disorder, inflammatory bowel disease and disorders causing severe and persistent muscle spasms to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be prescribed.