LEWISTON, Maine — Advocates hoping to make legal the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use have launched an effort to collect enough voter signatures to put the issue on a Lewiston municipal ballot in November.
“The petition process will spark a public dialogue about marijuana and the need for more sensible marijuana laws,” said David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Lewiston supporters include a Republican candidate for the Legislature as well as a former city councilor and state representative, Stavros Mendros, who also is an active member of the GOP.
“To me, this is a simple issue of freedom,” Mendros said. “I’m not a big fan of marijuana. I think smoking, it is a bad idea personally, with all due respect. I think it’s dumb, bad for your health. But then again, so is being fat, and nobody’s thrown me in jail for that.”
Mendros said to him it was about the idea of allowing adults to make their own choices about a using a substance that many argue is less addictive and dangerous than alcohol.
“It’s not about selling drugs. It’s not a gateway. I bought a Gateway computer, and there was no pot in it,” Mendros said. “I don’t buy any of those arguments. It’s about just letting people be free.”
He said public resources spent on enforcing and prosecuting marijuana crimes would be better spent on reducing violent crime and property crime.
“We have bigger fish to fry,” Boyer said.
He and Mendros also said legalized marijuana would make it harder for children to get marijuana. Mendros said teens say it’s easier to acquire marijuana than alcohol. Because alcohol is tightly regulated and those licensed to sell it are monitoring closely, it’s more difficult for minors to get, Mendros argued.
“It’s about control. Right now, we have no control over marijuana,” Boyer said. “I think everyone agrees that prohibition hasn’t worked, just like alcohol prohibition. And the harms of prohibition outweigh the harms of alcohol and the harms of marijuana.”
Boyer said once marijuana was sold by licensed, regulated and tax-paying businesses owners, it would be more difficult for minors to purchase pot.
But opponents of legalization say it sends the wrong message to young people and normalizes drug use and abuse.
“It’s going to cause far more issues than any it might try to solve,” said Scott Gagnon, a substance abuse counselor and member of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).
Gagnon said he has little doubt advocates for legalization will be able to collect the 859 voter signatures required to place the issue on a citywide ballot in November.
“Our role in this is to tell the other side and make sure folks are aware of what this can bring,” Gagnon said. He said other states, including Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, are seeing an uptick in youth marijuana use. Gagnon said Androscoggin County already has a high percentage of middle school and high school students who believe there is no risk from regular marijuana use.
Data that Gagnon provided to reporters Monday also showed that tax revenue collected on the sale of alcohol and tobacco did not cover the associated social costs.
Some Lewiston school officials, including School Board Chairman James Handy, have been outspoken opponents to making recreational marijuana legal in the city. Public education officials point to evidence that shows marijuana use by young people can lead to cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems and may even lower overall intelligence scores.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, marijuana use by teens has risen to the highest percentage in the past 30 years — with one in eight eighth-graders nationwide saying they have used marijuana at least once in the last year.
Paul McCarrier, a spokesman for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, said the medical marijuana community also has concerns about recreational legalization. McCarrier said they don’t necessarily oppose recreational legalization but want to ensure that medical marijuana patients retain the right to grow their own.
McCarrier said his group supports an approach that does not include a “sin tax” and preserves the right of an individual to cultivate for personal use without any special license or permit from the government.
“It would be treated a lot more like an herb,” McCarrier said.
But supporters of the ordinance say legalization would produce a new tax source to help cover the costs of public education or other city priorities without further burdening property taxpayers.
“Cannabis reform is just one in a list of reforms we need for out state,” Luke Jensen said Monday.
Jensen, a Republican, is running for Lewiston’s House District 58 seat, which is held by incumbent Rep. Michel Lajoie, a Democrat who is seeking re-election.
Jensen said marijuana was already widely sold on the black market, and profits from those sales feed criminal activity. He said legalizing and regulating marijuana would make the city and the state safer and allow for a new industry and a new source of tax revenue to develop.
“Lewiston voters know we could create millions in tax revenue that could get them a little relief as far as taxes go,” Jensen said.
Those seeking to put the ordinance before voters will have 60 calendar days to collect the signatures they need.
Matt Roy, a Lewiston School Board member, and Leslie Dubois, a city councilor, also support putting the question before voters.
Portland voters approved an ordinance legalizing recreational marijuana in 2013, with 67 percent voting in favor of the new ordinance. State and federal laws that treat marijuana as an illegal substance supersede the local ordinance.
Boyer said the idea of passing local ordinances legalizing marijuana is part of a stepping-stone approach leading to a statewide ballot initiative for 2016.
The group also is working to pass legalization ordinances in York and South Portland.