"This actually has a shot at passing," says State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who's hoping to make Maine the third state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
By Bill Nemitz
State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, detects the scent of social change in the air.
And darned if it doesn't smell like marijuana.
"This actually has a shot at passing," Russell said this week as she prepared to roll out a bill that would legalize small amounts of pot not just for Mainers who use it for medicinal purposes, but for those who simply want to get a good buzz on.
Think she's crazy?
For the second time in as many years, Russell is asking her fellow lawmakers to consider that: a) the war on drugs is a lost cause when it comes to keeping marijuana out of the hands of our kids; b) the ton of illicit money now spent on pot is an opportunity lost for Maine's economy and the state's squeaky-tight treasury; c) police have better things to do than run around Maine with their noses in the air and; d) the best thing lawmakers could do in these ever-so-contentious times is gather in a circle beneath the State House dome and pass around a big fat doobie.
OK, that last one was just my wishful thinking. Still, Russell isn't blowing smoke when she insists that the times they are a changin' when it comes to the erstwhile evil weed -- not just here in Maine, but all over the country.
To wit: In November, when Maine voters became the first to approve same-sex marriage at the polls, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized pot by near-identical majorities of just over 55 percent.
In December, President Obama told ABC's Barbara Walters that he has no plans to go after those two states – or the 16 others that allow medicinal use of marijuana – despite the fact that they're technically violating federal drug laws.
"We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama observed.
And just this week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee emerged from a closed-door meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and told The Seattle Times that the chat was "very satisfying" and a "confidence builder" as his state goes about implementing its new law.
In other words, the feds clearly are mellowing out on the pot issue.
And as they do, the state-based, legalized-marijuana juggernaut is fast altering the nation's social landscape much as state-based, same-sex marriage decisions have in recent years.
Which brings us back to Maine -- and some three-year-old numbers that speak volumes about how we as a state just might be feeling about marijuana these days.
Remember the off-year election in 2009?
That was the year conservative voters flocked to the polls and, by a solid 53 percent majority, summarily rejected same-sex marriage.
Yet in that same election, those same voters approved the expansion and implementation of Maine's 10-year-old medicinal marijuana law by a whopping 59 percent.
Translation: Legalized marijuana, at least when used medicinally, was not as big a deal to Maine voters in 2009 as same-sex marriage was.
Three short years later, same-sex marriage is the law of the land.
So it's hard not to wonder: Is legalizing the possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana for any Mainer 21 or older another idea whose time has come?
"The question of whether or not to legalize marijuana has already been answered (with Maine's medical marijuana law)," Russell noted. "We've had the tipping point."
What's more, she said, marijuana advocates fully intend to launch a citizens initiative calling for legalized pot in 2016.
Russell would rather get out in front of that often imperfect process and pass a law – still subject to a referendum this fall – that nips any unintended consequences (as it were) in the bud.
But is the Legislature, which trounced a similar bill introduced by Russell in 2011, ready to take a second look this soon?
Russell thinks so – and she's getting support from, of all places, conservative Republicans.
Enter Rep. Aaron Libby, a libertarian Republican from Waterboro who appeared with Russell at Thursday's news conference to stoke support for the bill.
"I definitely think you're going to see a change from last session to this session," predicted Libby, one of five Republicans who supported Russell's bill last time. "I think it's going to be very close."
Maybe Libby's dreaming. Or maybe the more lawmakers on both sides of the aisle take a whiff of this once-unheard-of legislation and float it past their constituents, the more they'll warm up to it.
There is, after all, money behind all that cannabis -- Russell estimates that her proposed $50-per-ounce excise tax on marijuana wholesalers would generate at least $13 million a year in state revenue. (Not to mention the sales tax paid by consumers and income tax paid by legal dealers.)
There's also a better chance of keeping legal pot out of the hands of kids, who tell pollster after pollster that it's far easier to score a joint than it is to buy a cigarette or a beer.
"When was the last time you heard of a drug dealer carding a kid?" mused Russell. "It doesn't happen."
(Speaking of those street-level pot dealers, wouldn't it be smarter social policy to put them out of business rather than spend millions keeping them locked up in jail?)
Finally, there's the chill factor.
Let's face it, folks, alcohol can be one messy recreational drug.
Depending on who's drinking it and how much, booze frequently leads to fistfights inside and outside bars, hangovers, serious addiction, domestic disturbances, trouble with the cops and, in cases of extreme consumption, trips to the emergency room.
Marijuana, on the other hand, leads to the munchies, fascination with inanimate objects and the occasional case of the giggles.
Heck, with all the snarling across The Great Divide these days, a bipartisan bong or two might even produce some sorely needed tranquility.
As Russell, a self-proclaimed "bourbon girl," so aptly put it, "Why do you think they call it a peace pipe?"
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: