AUBURN — Scott Gagnon knows some people would characterize his fight against marijuana legalization as an uphill battle, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“There is this narrative that comes from the legalization advocates that it’s an inevitable, foregone conclusion,” said Gagnon, state coordinator of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine. “I think we’re in a good position to push back against that momentum and feeling of inevitability.”
Gagnon, who has worked in the substance abuse-prevention field for close to a decade, is quietly leading the charge against recreational marijuana legalization through SAM Maine, an offshoot of a national organization that is pushing back against the growing momentum in the country toward legalizing marijuana. The Maine chapter was created after Portland residents voted last November to legalize use of the drug by adults 21 and older.
Gagnon’s work with SAM Maine is driven by his concern about the effects that normalizing marijuana use would likely have on Maine communities and especially on young people. Legalizing the drug for adults would inevitably increase access for teens, whose developing brains could be hurt by marijuana use, he said. Legalization supporters argue that adults should be allowed to use marijuana in the privacy of their own homes, but Gagnon says that argument simplifies the issue and ignores many of the concerns he hears from Mainers.
“There are so many layers to this. It’s not just as simple as providing legal access to adults,” Gagnon said. “We do what we can to have a voice in this. Our voice is growing and our allies are growing. I think there’s a real enthusiasm to protect the quality of life in Maine.”
The creation of SAM Maine came as advocates began petitioning three communities – York, South Portland and Lewiston – for referendums on proposals to legalize marijuana use for adults 21 and older. SAM Maine got its first victory last week when the York Board of Selectmen declined to allow a referendum on a proposal to legalize marijuana use for adults 21 and older.
Up next is South Portland, where the City Council on Monday is expected to set a public hearing for Aug. 18 and take an initial vote on putting the question on a local ballot. Advocates are actively collecting signatures in Lewiston, with a goal of putting the issue to voters in November. The issue could resurface in York, where advocates are collecting more signatures to try to force a referendum.
The proposals would have more political significance than practical effect, since marijuana remains illegal under state and federal laws. Legalization advocates hope the efforts build momentum toward a statewide legalization vote in 2016.
The push for municipal votes comes as polls show Americans are increasingly supportive of legalization, and just after The New York Times, in an editorial, came out in support of letting states open the door to legal marijuana use while arguing that the war on drugs has been a failure when it comes to pot.
In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. In November 2013, Portland became the first city on the East Coast to pass a referendum declaring recreational use by adults to be legal.
And last year was the first time that a clear majority of Americans – 58 percent – said in an annual survey that the drug should be legalized. When the Gallup polling company first asked the question in 1969, only 12 percent favored legalization.
“The movement to make marijuana legal for adults is gaining steam every day,” said David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which is leading the legalization campaign in the state. “At this point, it’s really a matter of when and how, not so much if.”
Even before Portland residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana, Gagnon and others in the substance abuse-prevention field were talking about forming some kind of group to oppose the push to legalize.
Gagnon, 38, said he thought there would be more opposition to the proposal in Portland, but that never materialized beyond the occasional letter to the editor and a handful of “Say No to Potland” signs. Advocates for legalization were much more active, even putting ads on the sides of city buses.
That lack of opposition motivated Gagnon and others now involved with SAM Maine to form a more organized group, he said.
“We felt there needed to be a more balanced conversation,” Gagnon said. “What does this mean to real people? How will it impact communities?”
SAM Maine is an offshoot of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national alliance of professionals working in law enforcement and mental and public health. The national group was formed in early 2013 by former White House drug policy adviser Kevin Sabet and Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island. It includes people who “seek a middle road between incarceration and legalization,” according to its website. It has affiliates in 21 states.
While the Maine affiliate gets support from the national organization, that does not include money, Gagnon said. The five-member steering committee and others involved with the group are all volunteers, he said.
“Where we lack funding, we are really rich in people power,” Gagnon said. “It speaks to the dedication of people to protect their communities. The commitment is there and it’s pretty strong.”
The legalization effort in Maine is supported by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit that in 2012 reported revenue of $1.3 million, according to tax filings. Its educational branch, the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation, reported $3.5 million in revenue in the same year. Boyer is the only paid Marijuana Policy Project employee in the state.
Despite the lack of funding, Gagnon said his organization has been able to rally support from substance abuse-prevention professionals across Maine and from organizations like the Maine Public Health Association, Maine Chiefs of Police Association, Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs and Day One, which provides substance abuse and mental health programs for youths.
David Faulkner, executive director of Day One and a member of the SAM Maine steering committee, said he is not surprised that Gagnon would emerge as the leader of SAM Maine.
“He’s very bright,” Faulkner said. “And he’s very committed to trying to do the right thing.”
Gagnon, a soft-spoken father of three from Gray, is the substance abuse-prevention manager at Healthy Androscoggin in Lewiston. He never intended to work in that field, but found himself drawn to substance abuse prevention while studying for a master’s degree in public policy from the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service in Portland.
After finishing his degree, he went to work at Day One in York County, where he helped developed a strategic plan to address substance abuse and coordinated the Natural Helpers of Maine program. He has worked with Healthy Androscoggin since 2012, the same year he was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage to the Substance Abuse Services Commission. He is also chairman of the steering committee for the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse.
Gagnon said he and the SAM Maine steering committee are focused on providing residents who oppose legalization with scientific data on the effect that legal marijuana could have on public health and the economy. Many people who reach out to the organization are especially concerned that legalization will lead to more substance abuse and mental health problems in youths whose brains are still developing, he said.
A 2002 Canadian study found some loss of IQ among middle school students who smoked at least five joints a week. A study published in New Zealand in 2012 found people who smoked heavily beginning in their teens lost an average of eight IQ points by age 38. However, that study has been challenged by a Norwegian researcher who says socioeconomic factors may have played a role in the IQ loss.
Gagnon believes SAM Maine is providing more than just information to residents who are concerned about the legalization movement.
“We’re providing a platform for people who are concerned,” he said. “The hearing in York was a good testament to that. It provided residents the confidence that others are concerned about this. They’re not just sticking their necks out by themselves.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: