PORTLAND, Maine — Maine has been at the forefront of both the prohibition and legalization of marijuana from the 19th through the 21st century. It was one of the first states to outlaw recreational sales and possession more than 100 years ago. But it was also a leader in decriminalizing pot in the 1970s.
Now, Maine is about to become the 11th state with fully realized retail sales of cannabis.
With legal pot hitting the stores on Friday, it’s worth looking back on the history of marijuana in Maine, and why it went from legal to illicit and back again.
Before the 20th century, cannabis indica and sativa were commonly found in over-the-counter, alcohol-based medicinal tinctures. An advertisement for an indica-based cureall ran on the front page in the March 4, 1858, edition of the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier newspaper. It was squeezed between an ad for a sale on fresh lemons and a story about a Mattawamkeag log drive company.
“Alcoholic preparation from the leaves imported from Calcutta,” it read. “For the permanent cure of consumption! Bronchitis, asthma, coughs, colds, nervous debility. Price $2 per bottle.”
The quackish patent medicine was just one of hundreds that flourished in the United States in the second half of the 19th century. Most, like Maine’s own Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, were mostly alcohol, laced with various narcotics like opium, cocaine and cannabis. They were often prescribed for collicky, teething babies and were favored by adults, as well.
Recreational alcohol consumption was outlawed in Maine in 1851. But cannabis, opium and cocaine were still legal and owning a bottle of such patent medicines not only gave the consumer a blast of its active ingredient, it was also a way around Maine’s strict anti-booze laws.
But by the 1880s, doctors and muckraking journalists in Maine, and the rest of the country, were campaigning against these unregulated and unproven narcotic-laden meds. Their addictive natures and penchant for killing children via opiate overdose made them a target.
In 1905, journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote an 11-part story for Collier’s Magazine called “The Great American Fraud.” In it, he detailed the deceit and death associated with unregulated patent medicines. Later, the American Medical Association reprinted his entire series in a book, which sold 500,000 copies.
In response, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, requiring all medicine labels to clearly disclose what they contained. Congress then went on to actually regulate the amount of opiates in medicines with the Harrison Act of 1914.
The federal act did not include the regulation of marijuana-based pharmaceuticals, only opiates. But at that time, states began to ban all recreational use of narcotics, and cannabis was often lumped in with opiates.
Massachusetts was the first state to ban non-prescription marijuana in 1911. Maine, New York and Wyoming quickly followed suit.
Beginning in 1913, Maine started passing a series of statutes regulating all narcotics. By 1915, recreational use of the drugs was outlawed. The new law criminalized possession unless it was prescribed by a physician or veterinarian. It also required druggists to keep names of involved patients and doctors on file for two years — and compelled them to share that information with state health inspectors, when asked.
Judging by the dearth of newspaper articles on the subject or debate in the legislative record, the new laws were passed without fanfare. By 1931, non-medical marijuana was illegal in 29 out of 48 states.
With casual use banned, demand for prescriptions in the United States shot up, according to Alison Mack and Janet Joy in their 2000 book, “Marijuana as Medicine?: The Science Beyond the Controversy.”
“By the 1930s at least two American companies – Parke-Davis and Eli Lily – were selling standardized extracts of marijuana for use as an analgesic, an antispasmodic and sedative,” they wrote. “Another manufacturer, Grimault & Co., marketed marijuana cigarettes as a remedy for asthma.”
In 1934, Maine signed onto the national Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act, which covered cannabis. It codified previously conflicting state laws. There were still no federal anti-weed laws on the books. The act helped states further tighten restrictions on medical weed, making it harder for doctors to prescribe it.
Traditionally, Americans consumed their marijuana in the form of tinctures, but as the 20th Century wore on, smoking became more popular. This happened, in part, with the influx of Mexican immigrants fleeing chaos after the 1910 revolution. South of the border, smoking pot was already the norm.
According to Eric Schlosser’s 1994 Atlantic magazine article “Reefer Madness,” sailors and West Indian immigrants also brought the practice of smoking weed to southern port cities like New Orleans where it quickly developed a bad reputation, fueled in part by racism.
“In New Orleans, newspaper articles associated the drug with African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes and underworld whites,” Schlosser wrote. “Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”
What had previously been called cannabis was now almost universally referred to by its anglicised Mexican name — marijuana — emphasizing its foreignness. Maine was no exception.
A page 5 headline in the Feb. 5, 1938, edition of the Bangor Daily News blared: “Marijuana Cigarettes are Making Dangerous Strides.” The unattributed article features a near-hysterical tone and racial slurs. It blames pot for multiple, deranged homicides in larger cities and for leading white women into lives of prostitution. It concludes with an unsourced anecdote about the corrupting influence of out-of-state Black musicians on the unsuspecting population of the Queen City.
“Not long ago, a negro dance band visited Bangor and members of the troupe secretly distributed reefers to some of the patrons,” it read. “No known acts of violence were committed as a result, yet, potential criminals walked the streets as long as the weeds burned their deadly fire.”
The following year, 1939, Maine Sen. James Chamberlain, R-Brewer, introduced a bill mandating a life sentence for anyone caught possessing, selling or even giving away, marijuana. The Bangor Daily News editorial page called Chamberlain’s idea “righteous.”
“Those who distribute marijuana in any form deserve no clemency. They are morally guilty of a great sin — perhaps one more serious than murder,” it read.
But in the final analysis, the editorial argued against passing the bill only because it believed Maine juries would be hesitant about putting pot smokers to death, thus leading to fewer drug convictions.
Chamberlain’s bill did not pass and leaders at the State House in Augusta voted to keep medicinal marijuana legal while cracking down on barbiturates.
The federal government finally got into the business of cannabis regulation with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The law required anyone selling it to pay for a tax stamp. This effectively drove pot further underground, as coming forward to pay the tax would force someone to criminalize themselves under state laws.
Even so, marijuana’s exoctic and sex-crazed reputation continued to scandalize and titillate Mainers. A 1940 movie ad in the Bangor Daily News advertises an “adults only” double feature at The Grand in Ellsworth of “Reefer Madness” and “How to Take a Bath.”
“Reefer Madness” started out as a 1936 church-group funded, low-budget morality play designed to warn teens about the dangers of pot. However, as soon as it was made, movie director Dwain Esper bought it and recut it into a salacious and violent exploitation film. It got around censorship laws by being billed as educational.
The second film was also produced by Esper. “How to Take a Bath” had similar exploitation aims, though it replaced violence with nudity. It’s now considered a lost film — though the director’s other lingerie-soaked short, “How to Undress in Front of Your Husband,” survives.
In the coming decades, like exploitation films, marijuana would remain shocking but also available in Maine.
The state’s first federal weed conviction came in the spring of 1949. On March 12, the Portland Press Herald reported three young musicians pleaded guilty to smoking it. They’d been arrested in December inside a waterfront restaurant by a patrolman who searched them and found the pot.
“U.S. District Attorney Alston A. Lessard added however that because of its increased use throughout the country, this court should make them realize it is not a toy or plaything,” the paper said.
Roland Connors of Sanford, Arthur Margison of Hartford, Connecticut, and Joseph Rodrigues of Manchester, New Hampshire, were each given eight-month suspended sentences and two years of probation.
At the same time, both the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald were running scores of wire stories concerning the well-publicized legal woes of Hollywood weed-imbibers like Robert Mitchum, Gene Krupa, Tallulah Bankhead and Lila Leeds.
In 1952, a federal narcotics officer named John Sheehan told the Bangor Rotary Club that New England was the “cleanest” part of the country. A Bangor Daily News piece reporting on the luncheon also quoted Sheehan saying only one New England person had ever been arrested on “dope” charges in the history of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. Considering the bureau had been created 22 years earlier, the boast was hardly credible.
“Further investigation proved that he was a soldier, who had recently come from New York City and brought his supply of dope with him,” Sheehan said.
Still, the next year, Maine Gov. Burton Cross signed a bill increasing marijuana penalties. Anyone caught furnishing it to a minor under 16 was liable to a $1,000 fine and 20 years in jail.
A decade later, in 1962, a Maine legislator proposed a bill that would allow weed-smokers to be involuntarily committed to a hospital for treatment. Leaders in Augusta instead passed another bill, increasing simple marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a felony. Penalties increased from two to five years on a first offence, to two to eight years. A second go-round would land offenders in jail for five to 15 years.
By the middle of the 1960s, marijuana possession arrests were common in Maine. Dozens of Bangor Daily News stories tell of busted down doors, searches and seizures by county and state police. The datelines ranged from Presque Isle, to Eastport, to Alfred.
In 1966, the University of Maine expelled two students for smoking pot. One, a dean’s list student named Donald Hadley, was also arrested in his off-campus, Orono apartment and charged with possession of marijuana seeds — a felony. That charge was later dropped and Hadley was convicted of the misdemeanor crime of “unlawfully and intentionally inhaling fumes of cannabis,” and fined $1,000.
The Bangor Daily News editorial page praised the university’s actions, urging them to “Wipe out this ugly canker discovered at an otherwise very fine state university. It is one extra-curricular activity that has no place in college life.”
An Associated Press wire story from December 1967 stated, with nothing to back it up, that hippies, liberals and returning Vietnam War veterans were to blame for a record rise in marijuana use in Maine. It also quoted a Maine State Police detective who said most of the pot was coming from Mexico because the state’s climate was too cold to grow it here.
Making the rounds in Maine cinemas that same summer was the pot-themed exploitation film “Maryjane.” Starring former singing heartthrob Fabian, it told the story of a teacher trying to break up a local drug ring who gets framed and arrested for possession of marijuana.
That fall, a 19-year-old in Blue Hill man was arrested for growing a substantial amount of weed in his garden and drying it in a nearby quarry. In newspaper accounts, Micheal Mackin was described entering a courtroom with “shoulder-length hair,” wearing “mod” clothing.
Mackin’s lawyers asked the judge in the case to rule the charges unconstitutional on the grounds they were excessive. They reasoned that smoking marijuana was akin to drinking a beer and ought to have the same level of legal scrutiny. The judge dodged the question in the protracted case and Mackin eventually pleaded guilty. He paid a $1,500 fine and was placed on two years of probation.
Though the judge did not rule on the Constitutional question, the case turned out to be the beginning of a nascent movement to decriminalize marijuana in Maine. The next year, in 1968, recently retired Maine U.S. Congressman and ambassador Stanley Tupper, a 2nd District Republican, spoke in favor of such a move in a speech in Orono. Tupper described pot as “non-addictive” and said penalties for possession should be reduced. He added that it would take a “very brave legislator” to introduce such a bill in Augusta.
The same movement was afoot on the national scene. Schlosser, in his Atlantic magazine story, reckons the easement of marijuana laws stemmed from its widespread use by middle-class, white college students in the 1960s. It was no longer thought of as a demon drug smoked only by immigrant Mexicans, crazed jazz musicians and violent African-Americans.
“Eleven states, containing a third of the country’s population, decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, and most other states weakened their laws against it,” he wrote.
Maine was one of the first to decriminalize it, along with Alaska, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, New York and North Carolina.
On Friday, April 9, 1976 — after two years of hearings and debates — Gov. James Longley signed a new criminal code into law. The code decriminalized possession of less than 1.5 ounces of marijuana. It did not legalize it, but reduced it to a civil charge, akin to a speeding ticket. The change had been opposed by a number of police agencies and conservative groups. Polls at the time revealed it was largely supported by a growing number of citizens who thought it wasn’t worth a criminal conviction on a teenager’s permanent record.
The new criminal code also included language legalizing deadly force in defence of a home and “certain sexual acts between consenting adults.”
Though the slow march toward weed’s full relegalization was under way, it would be a long time coming. In the meantime, the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs raged on in Maine and around the country.
In 1980, a ship with 34 tons of marijuana was seized in Stonington and two years later, a freighter with 30 tons was caught docking at a Bremen lobster pier.
The 1990s brought a new movement to bring pot full circle in Maine — back to being a legal medicine. To that end, activists lit up joints on the Somerset County Courthouse steps in April 1995.
Ken Elliott, one of the smokers who was given a court summons by police that day, said the weed was the only thing that helped his chronic back pain.
“This is not a ‘get high’ issue,” Elliott told a Bangor Daily News reporter on the scene.
At the same time, a bill was being introduced in Augusta that would have legalized medicinal use for those with HIV/AIDS and cancer only. That particular bill did not pass, but Maine later became the fifth state to legalize medical pot, via a 1999 citizen-initiated referendum. It took years to work out the details of how the system of growing and distributing would work — but legal weed was on the slow, steady rise in Maine.
A decade later, in 2009, voters OK’d an expansion of the medical statute, allowing for possession of greater amounts of medical weed and larger dispensaries. That year, Gov. John Baldacci also signed a bill easing civil fines for simple possession.
Then, in 2014, Portland residents voted overwhelmingly to remove all local criminal penalties for possession — for any purpose — of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. South Portland followed suit a year later and the state as a whole legalized all personal use quantities of weed in 2016.
Gov. Paul LePage vetoed implementation of the law in 2017, citing its disagreement with federal statutes, but the Legislature overrode it in 2018. It’s scheduled to be fully in place by October.
Soon, Mainers will be able to buy weed-based products at local retail shops, just as they could before the Civil War. It won’t be out of the question to find ads for marijuana on the front page of their morning newspaper, either — like the one the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier ran in 1858.