With the Legislature shut down for a week, lawmakers have an opportunity to spend some time in their districts, talking to constituents. It is also a chance to get into some mischief. Portland Rep. Diane Russell has decided on the second option.

On Wednesday, Russell unveiled her bill to legalize and tax the recreational use of marijuana in Maine. Russell says that if it became law, Maine could expect to collect $8.5 million a year in revenue and reduce law enforcement and corrections costs.

That sounds good, but it misses the point. Marijuana is a controlled substance under federal law, and if Maine did choose to become the first state in the union to end “pot-hibition,” it would still be illegal here.

That means that Maine officials would be supervising and taxing criminal transactions — in some cases felonies. Russell may be comfortable with getting the state involved in that kind of legal ambiguity, but we don’t like it. Maine voters have approved medical marijuana distribution, which is also a violation of federal law, but the current U.S. attorney general says he will not prosecute anyone for that. Recreational marijuana is another story.

And while there are some who claim that legalized marijuana would be used benignly by mature adults, reducing crime and other social ills, that is not the opinion of anything like a majority of the substance abuse, public health and law enforcement communities.

There is good reason to assume that some people don’t smoke pot now because it is illegal, and that usage would skyrocket if the law changed. What costs would result from even more drug abuse, and would the tax revenues be worth it?

Those are arguments for another day. Before you can get to the merits of this as a policy issue, you are stuck with the question of why state officials should be mucking around in a federal matter. With the real issues the state has regarding its lagging economy and lack of jobs, why should legislators spend even one off day talking about an idea that would ultimately require action from Congress and the president?

The Criminal Justice Committee has already rejected two similar bills this session. The members should do the same with this bill, but it would have been better if Russell and the other sponsors had shown better judgment and not wasted the committee’s time.

 


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