PORTLAND — Melissa Thomas is a 38-year-old interior designer for a local paint company. She has a 5-year-old son, and she is engaged to be married.
She shows up to work on time, and belongs to a book club and mothers groups. She pays her bills and is closing on the purchase of a house in South Portland next month.
And like an increasing number of Americans, she likes to smoke marijuana – not for its medical benefits but because she enjoys it.
“Alcohol makes me sleepy,” said Thomas, a well-dressed, well-spoken woman with long curly hair and an engaging smile. “Marijuana does the opposite – it tends to kick-start me, especially creatively.”
Thomas believes she uses marijuana responsibly, limiting her use to the occasional weeknight or weekend. She says she doesn’t drive after smoking and never uses marijuana around her son or before going to work. She firmly believes that children and teenagers, whose brains are still developing, should never use the drug.
But, she says, marijuana use by a responsible adult should be legal. And she is far from alone. After decades of shifting attitudes, more Americans now support legalizing marijuana than oppose it, according to national surveys.
On Nov. 5, Portland voters will try to make it so, at least within city limits. Voters are widely expected to pass a citizen-led referendum and enact an ordinance to legalize recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21.
However, the proposal would not allow people to use marijuana in public or operate a vehicle after smoking. Landlords could prohibit its use on their property. And there would still be no legal way for people to obtain marijuana – selling it will still be banned.
And, no matter what Portland voters say next month, marijuana use will still be illegal under federal law, which classifies pot as being in the same group as heroin.
Thomas said she decided to step forward publicly about her marijuana use – essentially admitting to illegal activity – to combat the fear and misconception about marijuana. She said her habit is known and accepted by her employer and her more conservative friends.
Even so, speaking publicly about her marijuana use carries some social risks.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be labeled for the vices they have,” Thomas said, adding that for some the vice might be gambling or drinking or sex. “That’s the most difficult thing about coming out.”
She is also stepping forward because of her son. “I don’t want my son growing up and thinking I’m a criminal,” she said.
CHANGES IN ATTITUDES
The Portland vote comes as attitudes toward legalizing marijuana are rapidly changing nationwide, according to a national survey released by the Pew Research Center in April. More than half – 52 percent – of 1,501 American adults surveyed now support legalizing marijuana. That’s up from just 12 percent in 1969, when marijuana use was associated with hippies and bohemians.
Pew found that support for legalizing marijuana has jumped 19 percentage points in the past decade, including 11 points in the last three years alone. And attitudes are shifting among all ages, political parties, races and genders.
The younger the adult, the stronger the support. For example, 65 percent of Millennials – people born since 1980 who are now between 18 and 32 – support the legalization of marijuana.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, baby boomers – those 50 and older who grew up during the counterculture revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s – have been all over the map when it comes to legalization.
In 1978, 47 percent of boomers favored legalization. That support plummeted to 17 percent when President Ronald Reagan was in office. Now, half of boomers support legalization.
The only age groups that don’t support legalization are members of the Silent Generation (born from 1925-1945) and Greatest Generation (1901-1924). Their support comes in at 32 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Timmi Sellers of Portland, a 64-year-old registered nurse, stopped smoking marijuana in the 1980s when she had children.
However, Sellers supports legalizing marijuana for adults and believes the drug is beneficial to combat anxiety and stress, even though smoking it can be harmful. Now that her two daughters are adults, Sellers said she would like to experiment with marijuana again.
Her husband, Rory, is a 65-year-old computer programmer who smokes marijuana when it is available, especially when watching movies or doing certain creative projects. He prefers marijuana over alcohol. “Alcohol is not intellectually interesting,” he says.
“We want it to be legal so we can enjoy it and not break the law,” Rory Sellers said.
Authors of a recent Brookings Institution report concluded that fewer people view marijuana as a gateway drug – one that leads to addiction to more dangerous drugs. And, they wrote, an increasing number of Americans doubt the government’s ability to enforce marijuana laws, similar to the way Americans regard the failed enforcement of alcohol during Prohibition.
Seventy-two percent of adults surveyed believe that enforcing marijuana costs more than it’s worth. And 77 percent believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses.
Marijuana legalization is a rare example of an issue that enjoys support across the political spectrum, according to the Brookings report.
Moderates and liberals support legalization, while conservatives believe legalization should be taken up at the state level, even if they personally have a negative view of the drug, the report said. Meanwhile, 43 percent of Republicans reported past use of marijuana, compared to 47 percent of Democrats.
“In an area when the attitudes of so many Americans on so many issues are driven by party preferences and ideological leanings, marijuana legalization is a partial exception, displaying a significant degree of ideological and partisan crossover,” they wrote.
For example, 60 percent of Republicans surveyed said marijuana should be illegal. Meanwhile, 59 percent of Democrats favored legalization and 60 percent of independents favored legalization.
the COLORADO template
Portland’s referendum is being promoted by the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that was instrumental in legalization efforts in Denver and later in the entire state of Colorado. The group also helped draft Maine’s medical marijuana law.
Maine is one of 11 states that has legalized the use of medicinal marijuana and decriminalized marijuana possession, making possession of small amounts a civil offense rather than a criminal one. While Maine is among the more pro-marijuana states, it is still following the leaders.
Last year, voters in both Washington and Colorado voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana statewide. Supporters in Washington celebrated their victory by openly smoking in the presence of police officers.
Last month, the Justice Department announced that it would not sue those states over plans to tax and regulate pot sales for adults, as long as the states adhere to federal priorities, such as preventing drugged driving and keeping marijuana away from kids and off the black market.
Maine has now been identified as one of 10 states targeted by the Marijuana Policy Project for either statewide legislation or a statewide vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana, the group’s executive director, Rob Kampia, has said.
Kampia said Portland – if voters approve the referendum next month – could play the same role Denver did during Colorado’s legalization efforts.
Denver voted in 2005 to remove all legal penalties for possession by adults. In 2012, the state voted to legalize the drug.
“We look at Maine as being on a similar track as Colorado, only here we hope the trajectory will be three years rather than eight,” Kampia said.
Maine author and filmmaker Crash Barry has high hopes that will happen.
The 45-year-old Barry, who has authored three books and writes a column for the Bollard, grows his own marijuana for medicinal purposes – chronic pain from being a demolition worker operating a jackhammer in Washington County.
“Hopefully when folks realize the Portland law won’t cause the downfall of society, the statewide movement will gain even more momentum,” said Barry, who lives in eastern Oxford County. “My biggest concern is that Maine’s legalization efforts focus on ensuring local marijuana growers benefit economically, rather than allowing big business to capitalize on what has always been a traditional seasonal Maine industry.”
Police say they will continue enforcing state drug laws even if Portland voters pass the ordinance, suggesting the vote will have more of a political impact than a legal one.
But, except for those warnings, there appears to be no organized opposition to legalizing marijuana in Portland.
Most of the criticism has focused on the impact the political campaign – the central message is that marijuana is safer than alcohol, and it’s plastered on city buses and bus shelters – could have on teenagers. Youth advocates, such as 21 Reasons, argue this messaging reduces the youth perception of risk when it comes to marijuana, which has been proven to lead to increases in use. Marijuana, in turn, is damaging to developing brains, they say.
Dr. Mark Publicker, a specialist in addiction medicine who previously fought against the state’s medical marijuana law, said that the absence of any organized opposition shouldn’t be construed as support for legalizing marijuana.
“There are extremely well-funded organizations nationally that are able to focus a great deal of money, influence and advocacy into a state like Maine and that’s what has happened,” Publicker said. “This time people have thrown in the towel.”
Publicker said attempts by marijuana proponents to present marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol are based on a false assumption that those who smoke marijuana will not drink. “Of course, they’re going to do both,” he said.
Publicker also believes that, as with other drugs, between 10 percent and 15 percent of marijuana users will become addicted and that legalizing it will only increase the total number of those addicted.
Meanwhile, police have no way of testing a driver’s marijuana intoxication levels, as they can with alcohol. Publicker also fears that more people – including children – will be exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke, which is not only unhealthful but can make others high.
“There’s no such thing as secondhand drinking,” he said.
Conversely, several groups are lining up in support of the measure. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine supports legalization here – and statewide – as a way to reduce incarceration rates.
And the NAACP of Maine supports legalization, because those incarceration rates are higher among blacks than whites.
Citing 2010 statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in July, the NAACP of Maine said blacks in Maine are twice as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. In Cumberland County, blacks are 1.4 times more likely to be arrested, but in York County, blacks are five times more likely to be arrested.
The Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine also supports legalization, saying it will allow patients who cannot afford the doctor’s recommendation now required for medicinal use to legally use it as medicine.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: