I’ve spent my 50-year career in public safety and the military trying to protect and keep people safe. Some of the most challenging things I have dealt with were not actions of individuals but the consequences of political decisions. With Question 1, which would legalize recreational marijuana, you get to decide whether this law goes into effect. If it does, I can assure you the unintended consequences will be many.
As a naval officer during the Vietnam War, I saw young men devolve into addiction — first with marijuana and then with harder drugs such as heroin. As Waterville police chief, I saw parents neglect their children and watched as young people let their ambitions wallow in a haze of marijuana smoke. As commissioner of public safety, which includes Maine State Police, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and Maine fire marshal’s office, I read reports almost daily about marijuana-related incidents, crashes and crimes.
Among all the false claims made by the pro-legalization campaign, advocates have said police officers need to spend less time going after marijuana users and more time arresting serious criminals. Let’s be clear: Marijuana is already decriminalized in Maine. Offenders receive a citation. They are not arrested for simple possession, and marijuana possession is a very low priority for police officers.
State police and local law enforcement agencies already are focused on the bigger fish — heroin, cocaine and crack dealers, violent criminals and violent crime. Any assertion that officers are spending inordinate time going after marijuana possessors is an attempt to mislead the public. It just doesn’t happen.
I recently met with law enforcement and community leaders from three states that have legalized marijuana. What we’re seeing in states such as Colorado that have legalized marijuana for recreational use and retail sale does not bode well for Maine’s prospects should Question 1 pass.
Since 2013, the state saw a 62 percent increase in the number of marijuana-related traffic deaths and similar increases in the number of drivers testing positive for marijuana use, according to a report issued in September by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Law enforcement in Maine is not prepared for this influx of marijuana-related traffic crashes. While state law enforcement officers receive extensive training on alcohol impaired driving, less than 10 percent have been trained to detect marijuana-impaired drivers.
Supporters tout the supposed economic benefits, but about 62 percent of Colorado municipalities have passed ordinances banning marijuana businesses from their jurisdictions. Local communities have overwhelmingly decided that the societal downsides far outweigh any economic benefits.
Legalized marijuana attracts the wrong elements, too. Complaints about the public consumption of marijuana between 2014 and 2015 increased 17 percent in the city of Boulder, for example. This tells us people already are fed up with public displays of drug use. Maine needs to attract young families, and this is not the kind of environment those families want to provide for their children.
Additionally, marijuana legalization hits kids especially hard. Accidental marijuana ingestion by Colorado children under age 12 increase about 50 percent between 2011 and 2014. Since Colorado expanded its medical marijuana program in 2009, there has been a 22 percent increase in drug-related school suspensions and expulsions, and 82 percent of school resource officers have experienced an increase in student marijuana-related incidents.
Colorado now ranks first in the nation for marijuana use among 12- to 17-year-olds. To make matters worse, Question 1 would repeal the state law prohibiting minor possession of marijuana for anyone under 21, including teenagers and young children.
Colorado’s emergency health care resources also have been stretched. Consumption by children or inexperienced users, especially when accidental or by highly concentrated edible products, has driven a 29 percent increase in emergency room visits between 2013 and 2014, a 38 percent increase in hospitalization related to marijuana between 2013 and 2014, and a 73 percent increase between 2013 and 2015 in calls to poison control hotlines related to marijuana.
My role is not to tell Mainers how to vote. But it is important that those with experience in public safety educate the public about what the aftermath of marijuana legalization would look like. Beware of one-sided portrayals of tax revenue, “marijuana tourism” and fewer burdens on law enforcement. If pot is legalized, Mainers will see more crime, crashes and traffic deaths and hospital visits by children that will burden our health care and law enforcement systems.
John Morris is the commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety.