SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The possibility of marijuana legalization took center stage at a debate in the high school auditorium on Wednesday night.
Both participants — David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, and Chief Edward Googins of the South Portland Police Department — stood their ground as they discussed a citizen-initiated referendum question that will be on the Nov. 4 ballot.
If passed, the ordinance would make it legal for adults age 21 and older in the city to possess and use up to an ounce of marijuana, although it would not legalize public use or the operation of any type of vehicle while under the influence of the drug.
Boyer stressed these points in his opening statement, and he said it is illogical to punish adults for doing something that studies have proved less harmful than alcohol.
He also said marijuana policy has historically involved scare tactics and propaganda, and very few facts.
“It’s time to move beyond the reefer madness,” Boyer said.
Googins did not agree.
He said that throughout his 40 years in law enforcement, he’s seen a great deal of suffering because of drugs, drug addiction and drug-related crime. Two harmful substances — alcohol and tobacco — are already legal, Googins pointed out.
“It defies logic that a third legal drug … would make this any better,” he said.
Scientifically speaking, Googins said, using marijuana has negative impacts on cognitive ability and judgment, and it often leads to both physical and mental harm.
The “alarming” events in Colorado resulting from marijuana legalization, Googins said, are an indication that increasing access in South Portland would be unwise. It would be especially dangerous for the city’s youth, he said, because marijuana often serves as a gateway drug.
“We are the moral compass for our community,” the chief said.
Boyer said the government should not legislate morality and, in any case, access to the drug would not be increased for people of any age.
Marijuana is already prevalent in society, and giving adults a safer alternative to alcohol or tobacco would actually reduce violent crime, Boyer said.
In the future, if marijuana is taxed and sold like alcohol, the need for drug dealers would be eliminated, he said, and children would actually have less access to marijuana. With the implementation of dispensary carding and advertising oversight, and as a result, no dealers, Boyer said there would be no one to offer children the real gateway drugs.
“I can’t share the optimism that it won’t perpetuate,” Googins replied. He said studies have shown over the years that when perception of risk decreases, drug use increases in tandem.
When asked if the ordinance would actually change anything, since it will not affect state or federal law, Boyer said he believes it would send a message to the rest of the state.
Legalization would mean adults who use the drug responsibly, in the privacy of their homes, would not be penalized by drug tests at work, he said, and that college students wouldn’t lose their financial aid if they were caught with marijuana.
People who need to utilize the drug for medical reasons, but cannot do so legally, perhaps because they cannot afford a doctor or their symptoms are not approved for medicinal treatment, could find relief from pain and suffering, Boyer said.
He also said minorities would not be disproportionately charged with drug possession, as they are now.
“The ball’s in his court in terms of practical change,” Boyer said, gesturing to the chief.
Googins said that although officers seldom charge individuals solely for possession, marijuana and other drugs are almost always involved when there is larger crime committed.
For example, he said, a young man arrested a few weeks ago was found in possession of his father’s medical marijuana. If someone is arrested for a separate issue and they are in possession of marijuana, the chief said, officers will react accordingly.
In closing, Boyer asked the audience, “What should govern public policy? Fear? Or facts? I think facts.”
“It is a serious issue,” Googins concluded. “It will have a serious impact on all of us. It will not make our community safer or add quality of life.”