AUGUSTA – A bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Maine ran into opposition at a public hearing Friday from police, substance-abuse counselors and medical-marijuana interests.

The proposal by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is a sweeping measure that would allow anyone 21 or older to possess as much as 2½ ounces of marijuana and six plants.

L.D. 1229 also would license cultivators, producers of products containing marijuana, retailers and laboratories, giving preference to officials at dispensaries that operate now under Maine’s medical-marijuana law.

It would subject recreational marijuana to a $50-an-ounce excise tax, as well as sales tax.

Russell’s bill is supported by civil libertarians and national marijuana groups, which say legalizing marijuana would undermine the black market and generate state revenue from a substance that is safer than alcohol.

“We have seen, over the past several years, a real culture shift in the attitude toward marijuana,” Russell said. “We can actually get control of the market.”

In November, Colorado and Washington voters legalized recreational use of marijuana. A survey in April by the Pew Research Center showed, for the first time in more than 40 years of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans in support of legalizing marijuana.

Russell said Maine should “get ahead” on legalization as popular support for loosening restrictions grows.

Maine is liberal on marijuana relative to most states: It’s one of 18 states that allow medical use of marijuana. It’s one of 15 states that have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it only a civil violation, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Any use or possession of marijuana is illegal under federal law.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is the most prominent in-state group supporting Russell’s bill. A national group, the Marijuana Policy Project, has been the most visible lobbying force behind it.

Both groups led a rally at the State House before Friday’s public hearing by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said the bill would reduce incarceration rates in Maine, helping overcrowded, underfunded county jails.

But law enforcement groups vehemently oppose legalization.

Representatives from the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Sheriffs Association and the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency testified against the bill.

Many police consider marijuana a “gateway drug,” which leads users to other, more harmful drug use.

“People are not in jail for using marijuana,” said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry. “Rather, people are in jail for engaging in a lucrative black market to unconsciously promote widespread use of the drug for personal gain.”

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the police chiefs association, testified that legalization would make Maine a “launching pad” for marijuana, attracting criminal organizations that would look to smuggle it into other states.

Merry said high taxes on legal marijuana would lead people to grow their own, reducing revenue to the state.

Paul McCarrier, a lobbyist for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, an advocacy group for small-scale medical-marijuana growers, agreed with Merry.

McCarrier, whose group opposes Russell’s bill, said its proponents have ignored the cost of enforcing “astronomical tax collection on a plant.”

“Taxes like these would work against public safety, by encouraging more smuggling of marijuana into Maine to compete with the legal, regulated market, and that smuggled marijuana would not be taxed, nor would the money stay in Maine,” he said.

Glenn Peterson, owner of Canuvo, a dispensary in Biddeford, has told the Portland Press Herald that he sells marijuana for $360 per ounce. McCarrier said caregivers sell it for $175 to $250 per ounce.

Legal recreational marijuana would likely undercut those prices, although it’s difficult to estimate by how much. Experts say a successful program would tax marijuana enough to generate sufficient revenue, but not enough to encourage black-market sales.

A paper by a group of marijuana researchers, published last month in the Oregon Law Review, says the American marijuana market is a $30 billion-a-year industry, but modern farming techniques could supply that demand for “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

While proponents of Russell’s bill say access to marijuana is already easy, substance-abuse counselors expressed concern about Russell’s bill Friday.

Scott Gagnon, substance abuse prevention manager for Healthy Androscoggin, a Lewiston-based health group, said problems with legal marijuana could mirror problems with prescription drugs — prevalence in the homes of children.

“If you legalize this, you’ll have more adults having it in the home,” he said.

Many marijuana advocates, like McCarrier, are wary of the regulations called for in Russell’s bill, though they support the concept.

Don Christen, a longtime advocate of legal marijuana, said, “People who are against it, they want to see prohibition ended but they don’t want to see it … under the regulations that are under this law.

“Forget the money,” he said. “We can make our own money; Maine’s smart.”

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme