Gov. Paul LePage over the weekend signed a proclamation making passage of Question 1 official, and marijuana legalization is poised to become law on Jan. 30. The portions of the initiative allowing home grows and the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana will take effect immediately, the commercialization of marijuana, but retail shops and social clubs need to go through the rulemaking process. The discussion now turns to how it will move through rulemaking, how to protect the health and safety of Mainers and how to respect democracy, or the will of the voters. And lawmakers are rightly considering passing a moratorium on commercial marijuana operations with the public good in mind.
“The will of the voters” will be the political buzz phrase over the next few months. Let’s have a quick review of the vote on Question 1. Yes, the people have spoken, and half of them said no. Two-thirds of Maine cities and towns saw a majority of voters cast a “no” vote on Question 1. Frankly — and to the credit of the “yes” side — if it weren’t for the lopsided vote in Portland, Question 1 would have failed, and we would not be having this conversation. In a nutshell, legalization technically passed, but the proponents of Question 1 cannot credibly state that a hair’s width margin gives them a mandate and carte blanche to implement Question 1 without changes.
Marijuana legalization is a huge social and cultural change for Maine. It is also a huge regulatory change at the state and local levels. We are talking about starting up another legal, commercial drug industry in Maine. It is the legal commercial drug industries that have fueled the massive costs to Maine associated with addiction and other burdensome social costs. In 2013, the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services pegged the annual cost of alcohol and drug abuse at $1.4 billion, or $1,057 for every Maine resident. In order to prevent these already sky-high costs from escalating further, we need to put strict rules and regulations in place to minimize risks to public health and, hopefully, avoid adding to our already out-of-control addiction crisis.
As was discussed during the Question 1 campaign, there are many flaws and loopholes in the initiative. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has stated that the law would create a loophole that would make it lawful for youth to possess marijuana. Now, Maine lawmakers have gone on record to say they will address this issue quickly, and hopefully they will because this loophole creates significant and immediate risks for our youth. But this is far from the sole issue in Question 1.
A major source of trouble in states such as Colorado that already have legalized marijuana is marijuana-laced edibles. To be specific, this is a major source of trouble in terms of public health. Marijuana-related exposures in young children have risen 150 percent since 2014, when the retail sales of marijuana began and exposure to potent marijuana edibles has driven this increase, according to a 2016 study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Colorado still is grappling with rules and regulations to minimize the risks and harms these products pose to children. But the need to address public health risks is in competition with the drive of the marijuana industry to maximize profits, and the edibles market has rapidly grown to make up half the overall marijuana market in that state. This has led to, in my experience as an addiction prevention expert, weak or watered down policies around packaging, advertising and labeling. Edibles pose one of the biggest risks to our youth; it is imperative we have everything in place possible to minimize harms. This isn’t something we can do overnight.
On Jan. 30, possession of pot and marijuana homegrows will become legal. A state moratorium won’t stop that, and this was a main objective of the Yes On 1 campaign. But the Yes On 1 campaign also talked about public health approach and responsible regulations. They talked a good game about minimizing risks to youth and public health. Now it’s time to walk the talk. Let’s provide the time and breathing room necessary to make smart policy decisions informed by data and science that will serve to protect the health, safety and interests of Mainers. The Legislature must pass a one-year moratorium on commercial marijuana operations.
Scott M. Gagnon is a certified prevention specialist with a decade of professional experience in the field of youth addiction prevention. He also is the chair of the Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities coalition.