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Maine can use marijuana legalization to improve public health — if it’s done right

George Danby
Posted Aug. 07, 2014, at 11:46 a.m.

Public health advocates as a whole oppose widespread marijuana legalization. While many recognize the benefits of decriminalizing private use, they fear that legalization will breed a new tobacco-style industry that will normalize, promote and protect the use of the drug.

I have watched this process unfold in Colorado. The Denver Post, the state’s major paper, does careful reviews of different marijuana strains in its Cannabist blog. One of the “Weed Sport” column’s recent headlines was “ Golfing while stoned seemed an inspired idea — and it was.” The Colorado Symphony combined forces with the industry for a series of “High Note” concerts. Children walk by cannabis leaf storefront advertising, and, at least in Denver, the smell of marijuana is ubiquitous.

Public health advocates might worry about the prospect of marijuana culture infusing everyday life everywhere marijuana is legalized. But the public health community needs to realize that some form of legalization is inevitable and certainly preferable to the draconian status quo. If they fight until the last breath, the burgeoning marijuana industry will be left to write its own rules.

Instead, public health advocates should embrace and mold the emerging public consensus favoring legalization with a goal of overall harm reduction.

To that end, Maine should allow 21-year-olds to buy marijuana, but only at state-owned stores. These New Hampshire-style liquor stores (but without the highway billboards) would prevent the flashy sign competition that would exist between private stores, and it would reduce the profit-maximizing impetus for the industry to band together to lobby for looser regulations and promote overall demand.

There would be significant taxes and, unlike in Colorado, where you can buy “ganja grommet lollipops,” there would be limited offerings of standardized products. This would, hopefully, keep brands from competing for market share, which inevitably exposes children to advertising. Maine could plow its profits into enforcement, drug education and rehabilitation so that the state doesn’t get too addicted.

Marijuana use would only be legal in private, and if smoke drifts unwanted into a neighboring apartment, there would be a warning followed by a fine.

Unfortunately the government and researchers have failed to really study the effects of marijuana until recently. We know that it is bad for adolescent brains, and we need to make the message clear to kids. It isn’t heroin or even tobacco, and it probably isn’t that bad for their parents, but it is still bad for them.

Which brings up another point. If this regulatory scheme makes obvious sense for legal marijuana, doesn’t it make even more sense for the far more dangerous drug, tobacco?

You hear people say things like, “I hate tobacco, but it’s legal and in a free country we can’t tell people where they can buy or use it.” The fact that this is a mainstream belief in a society that righteously regulates baby crib protective bumpers is further evidence of the power of the tobacco industry to at least retard regulatory progress. But perhaps the public, ready for legal marijuana with serious regulations, would be able to break through this mental block.

It is speculative at this point, but I think a constitutional amendment that permitted tobacco and marijuana sales, but only at state-owned stores, could pass an up-or-down vote in Maine. It would limit use of both to private settings and would declare the smoke a nuisance. Big tobacco would obviously oppose this, but the common sense majority using the momentum for more sensible marijuana laws might just prevail.

It will take quick action. If we sit back and allow one state at a time to adopt the Colorado model, the industry will become a tobacco-like steamroller.

Andy Schmidt of Portland moved to Maine from Colorado, where he was an attorney. He plans to start a new law practice in Portland in the fall once he is licensed.

 

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