Washington County commissioners take stand against legalization of marijuana

Posted April 11, 2014, at 12:02 p.m.
Last modified April 11, 2014, at 2:19 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — The Washington County Commission adopted a resolution opposing the legalization of cannabis products and the recreational use or marijuana.

The commission approved the proclamation, sought by a public health advocacy coalition, by a 2-0 vote at its regular meeting on Thursday. Commissioners Chris Gardner and John Crowley endorsed the measure; Commissioner Vinton Cassidy was absent.

Some proponents of legalizing marijuana argue that it is less harmful than alcohol, noted Gardner.

“That doesn’t make it … a better idea,” he said.

As for those who would disagree with the commission’s adoption of the anti-marijuana measure, “They run elections every four years,” Gardner said.

The resolution was sought by Dustin Foss, youth and community outreach coordinator for Washington County: One Community, a coalition that promotes public health. She briefed the two commissioners on findings from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey as well as plans by advocates of legalizing marijuana — specifically, the Marijuana Policy Project — to seek local ballot initiatives in York, Lewiston and South Portland this fall and statewide legalization in 2016.

Dave Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, ripped Gardner and Crowley, saying it was “shocking” that the commissioners would spend time and taxpayer dollars to adopt the resolution. A policy under which marijuana is illegal allows no control over growers, sellers and buyers, he said Friday.

“Marijuana is less toxic and less addictive than alcohol,” said Boyer, “and unlike alcohol it does not contribute to violent and reckless behavior.”

Paul McCarrier, legislative liaison for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, said the organization concurred with the commission’s action.

“We do not need to rush the important policy decision to legalize marijuana,” said McCarrier, whose organization has opposed legislation to regulate and tax recreational use of marijuana like liquor.

The Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey showed some declining trends regarding tobacco and alcohol use among Washington County youths but increasing figures for marijuana.

For example, 28.5 percent of Washington County high school students reported smoking a cigarette before age 13 in 2011; the percentage increased to 34.2 percent in 2013. However, the percentage of students who reported using tobacco in the past 30 days declined from 21.9 percent in 2011 to 19.7 percent in 2013.

In a similar question, 25.3 percent of the students reported using marijuana before age 13 in 2011; the percentage fell dramatically to 10.1 percent in 2013. However, the percentage of students reporting that they tried marijuana in the past 30 days increased from 19.5 percent in 2011 to 23.6 percent in 2013.

Only one other county — Oxford — reported a higher percentage on the 30-day use question, 26.8 percent, but some counties did not collect valid data, Foss noted.

Other survey questions showed a declining use of alcohol among students.

The coalition has been working to reduce underage drinking and tobacco use, noted Foss, and those efforts appear to be paying off. “That’s great news for us,” she said, discussing the survey data Friday.

However, the data regarding marijuana use “sort of reflect what’s going on,” she said, referring to Maine’s legalization of medicinal use of marijuana and the campaign to legalize recreational use in some localities and statewide. Students “are more comfortable using it,” she said.

It is “very concerning” that the percentage of students who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days has increased and surpassed cigarettes in the past two years,” said Foss.

Washington County was the site of a huge illegal marijuana farm operation in recent years, and Foss conceded that the region’s rural nature makes marijuana cultivation relatively easy to conceal, especially on a small scale, and therefore accessible. “It’s an issue that we face,” she agreed.

The issue is perhaps underscored by another question in the survey about the accessibility of obtaining marijuana. Nearly 55 percent of students reported it would be “sort of easy” or “very easy” to get marijuana in 2011; the percentage increased slightly to 57.8 percent in 2013.

The coalition of Washington County: One Community organizations, associations, businesses and individuals disagrees with the idea that “marijuana is safe and will not harm those who use it,” Foss said.

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