LEWISTON, Maine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, doesn’t support making marijuana legal for recreational use at the national level.
But in November, Lewiston voters will get a shot at sending a message to Congress and the Legislature when they vote on a citywide ballot question that would make possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana legal for adults age 21 and older.
“From a federal perspective, if there were a bill in the Senate to legalize marijuana, I would vote against it,” Collins said.
That decision, she said, is based on extensive conversations she has had with medical professionals, law enforcement and others about what they are seeing in Maine in terms of substance abuse and a growing body of science that suggests marijuana use by teens can have a damaging impact on brain development.
“When we legalize a controlled substance, we send a message that there is no harm and that, based on all the conversations I’ve had with medical personnel and others, is just not the case,” Collins said.
Her position contrasts sharply with that of her Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
“We need to end the war on drugs and reform our criminal justice system,” Bellows said. “We cannot afford to wait. We should treat drug use and marijuana use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. I support marijuana legalization.”
Portland voters in November 2013 overwhelmingly approved an ordinance change legalizing adult possession of marijuana for recreational purposes. Along with Lewiston, voters in York and South Portland will vote on the issue in November.
Collins, who visited Lewiston earlier this week, also cited new information from Colorado, where voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2013. It shows an increased incidence of pediatric poisoning from marijuana.
She said some of the legally available products in Colorado, such as marijuana-infused candy, including gummy bears and lollipops, are little more than an effort to target children.
“It reminds me of the old cigarette ads they used to have,” Collins said.
She said she doesn’t tell people how to vote on local issues, but she’s strongly opposed to doing anything to normalize the use of drugs. Legalization of marijuana, she said, sends the wrong signal to young people, especially as Maine is already battling growing heroin and painkiller abuse problems.
“The other thing I’ve learned is that marijuana today is far more potent than it was 20 years ago, and we are starting to see a negative impact on developing brains in the teen years, and we are also starting to see people driving under the influence of marijuana,” Collins said.
She said Maine has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and that’s one avenue she might consider supporting at the federal level. Under Maine law, possession of a small amount of marijuana is illegal but not criminal, and those convicted of possession usually face only fines.
Collins’ position on legalization is at odds not only with Bellows, but with several Lewiston-area Republicans, including at least two candidates hoping to win seats in the Legislature.
Republican candidates who support the Lewiston ballot initiative include Lewiston’s House District 58 candidate Luke Jensen and House District 60 candidate and Lewiston City Councilor Leslie Dubois, who helped launch the city’s petition drive for a ballot question.
Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, a former police officer and a Republican, also has voiced opposition to making marijuana legal for recreational use.
Some Democratic candidates running for re-election to the Legislature in Lewiston and Auburn agree with Collins. For example, Jensen’s Democratic opponent, state Rep. Michel Lajoie, a former Lewiston fire chief, opposes marijuana legalization.
The votes in Maine’s cities are largely symbolic because state and federal laws, which supersede local ordinance, still make marijuana possession illegal.
So, according to Bellows and other advocates, the most logical place to reform the country’s marijuana policies is at the federal level.
“We can and should establish a system that regulates marijuana use to protect community health and safety instead of spending billions on a prison-industrial complex locking people up for using marijuana,” Bellows said.
She said the money spent on prisons and courts for low-level drug crimes would be better spent on education, prevention and rehabilitation.
Bellows also pointed to Maine’s experience with medical marijuana. Voters approved medical marijuana, also in conflict with federal law, more than a decade ago, she said.
“Maine is already a leader on marijuana policy, and it’s time for federal reform,” Bellows said. “We need a common-sense approach to drug policy based on science and liberty, and that means ending prohibition.”
Collins has said Congress should watch what happens in Colorado and Washington and use that information to help inform federal policy going forward, but Bellows rejects that notion.
“The federal government is spending billions of dollars a year on incarceration,” she said. “We lock up more people per capita than any other country in the world, and the majority of them are there for nonviolent drug offenses. We need a federal approach that will promote health and safety, including the safety of our children.”
Regardless of where voters stand on the issue, it is likely to draw voters to the polls in November, Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said.
She said the marijuana ballot question, a local ballot measure addressing a housing development project in the downtown and the statewide races for the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate have prompted her and her staff to prepare for a turnout that will rival that of a presidential election year.