Marijuana has enjoyed a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the United States.

Early-on, the government encouraged the production of hemp for industrial purposes. Then, cannabis became an ingredient in patent medicines. In the early 1900s, labeling laws required that its presence be disclosed. Mexican immigrants reportedly introduced Americans to the recreational use of marijuana when they came to the U.S. after the Mexican Revolution.

Recreational use eventually provoked a backlash. In 1932, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics developed the Uniform State Narcotic Act and urged states to adopt it. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which effectively criminalized marijuana. In the 1950s, Congress started setting mandatory sentences, which it repealed in the 1970s, and reimposed in the 1980s. In 1996, California voters approved the medical use of marijuana.

These days, it seems that public opinion increasingly favors legalization. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana. Colorado and Washington states have gone further and legalized recreational use. In a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of about 1,000 Americans surveyed favored legalization. The New York Times reports that after 17 years of experience with medical marijuana, California has not experienced the adverse effects that opponents predicted.

On Nov. 5, Portland residents will be asked to approve an ordinance that would legalize the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana by an adult, and legalize whatever activity it took that adult to obtain that marijuana.

Various advocates argue that marijuana is safer and less addictive than alcohol and tobacco, that it costs a lot to criminalize marijuana, that legalizing marijuana would create a new industry that would add to our economy, and that the laws criminalizing marijuana unfairly stigmatize users and disproportionately impact minorities.


On the other hand, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy maintains that marijuana is not benign, that it is associated with addiction, and is a precursor to the use of other drugs. The Drug Enforcement Agency reports that marijuana has adverse effects on mental and physical health, is strongly associated with juvenile crime, and is at least as problematic as alcohol in terms of driving under the influence.

Currently, federal law makes marijuana a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that the federal government has found that it has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use, and is unsafe.

As a result, it is a federal crime to possess marijuana, to grow marijuana, to distribute marijuana, and to possess marijuana with the intent to distribute it. (Federal law provides the option of filing a civil violation against someone who possesses only a personal amount of marijuana. Recently, the federal government has adopted a policy of de-emphasizing the prosecution of low-level drug offenders.)

Maine law also makes it a state crime to grow, cultivate, manufacture, traffic in, or possess with the intent to traffic in, marijuana. It makes the possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana a civil violation subject to fine.

In 2009, Maine voters approved a statewide initiative that led to authorization of medical marijuana. It provides that qualified, certified people can cultivate, dispense and use marijuana in order to alleviate debilitating medical conditions, and it prohibits penalizing people for doing so.

That puts Maine, along with other states, at odds with federal law. Where there is a conflict between state and federal law, federal law prevails. Maine’s medical marijuana law is not a defense to federal prosecution for manufacturing or distributing marijuana, and Portland’s ordinance won’t be either. It may mislead people into trouble.


As a general policy, I believe that society can only tolerate a certain number of intoxicated people on its streets and highways, at school, at work, and at play. Where society draws the line between legal substances and illegal drugs will always seem arbitrary at the margin. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw a line.

At the moment, the line has been drawn at marijuana. That’s not unreasonable. If it’s going to be changed, it should be changed thoughtfully, democratically and legitimately.

Sidebar Elements

Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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