AUGUSTA — Law enforcement officials, public health organizations and critics of the “war on drugs” clashed Wednesday over bills seeking to legalize marijuana, offering a potential preview of statewide debate over recreational use of the drug.

Sponsors of the two bills – Democratic Reps. Diane Russell and Mark Dion of Portland – argued that marijuana’s widespread use and low addictiveness merit regulating the drug like alcohol.

They also said the time is right for Maine to learn from states such as Colorado – and from Maine’s own tightly regulated medical marijuana market – by bringing a black market industry into the legal light and directing the resulting tax revenue toward more pressing problems.

“Prohibition is a failed experiment, period,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland police officer. “We do have a major drug problem in this state, but it involves opiate addiction and we need to bring every resource to bear on that problem.”

The bills’ many opponents warned that legalizing recreational use of marijuana would merely lead to more widespread drug abuse among young people, more impaired driving and other costly consequences.

“Sound drug policy must be rooted in evidence-based science, not driven by special interest groups who are looking to profit at the expense of our public health and safety,” said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.


Four separate efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Maine are underway: the two bills – L.D. 1380 and L.D. 1401 – and two campaigns hoping to force voter referendums on the issue in 2016. Russell’s bill, L.D. 1380, also would require voter approval if the Legislature passes it.

All four of the proposals would legalize pot possession and use by adults only, create a regulatory structure for retail stores and growers, and tax sales of the drug. Although still illegal under federal law, voters in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have legalized the drug for recreational use. Maine voters first legalized marijuana for medical use in 1999.

Both of the bills would allow those 21 and older to possess as much as 1 ounce of marijuana, set a 10 percent tax rate on pot sales and put the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations in charge of licensing and regulating retail establishments. Dion’s bill would cap the initial number of retail pot shops at 20.

Several dozen people testified Wednesday. With legislative committees expected to complete work on all bills this week, members of the Criminal Justice Committee are expected to hold a workshop and potentially vote on the bills Thursday.

In her testimony, Russell said Colorado’s experiences since legalization in 2012 show that youth drug use will not spike as a result. She repeatedly compared the current policies toward marijuana to the ultimately abandoned Prohibition movement that banned alcohol from 1920 to 1933.

Russell said that by borrowing the best parts of both her bill and Dion’s, Maine will be presenting voters with “a responsible package” that better positions Maine to deal with what she regards as the inevitable legalization of the drug.


“We have learned so much from Colorado and Washington state, but the biggest thing we have learned is to not get caught off guard,” Russell said.

Opponents of the bills were well-represented at the hearing. The Maine State Police, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs, the Maine Public Health Association and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention all testified against the measures.

The most emotional testimony came from addicts and their family members.

Nancy Gillespie of Falmouth fought back her emotions as she spoke about how two of her sons overdosed on heroin within a two-day period, one of them fatally. Gillespie acknowledged that she and her partner were “complacent” when their sons began using marijuana because they viewed it as a phase or right of passage.

But while their older sons simply used marijuana socially, Gillespie said she is convinced that pot led her two youngest sons down the road to heroin.

“I was cavalier about the boys’ marijuana use for the same reasons you are being told to be cavalier about marijuana in our state,” Gillespie said. “Look where it got me. Is legalizing marijuana worth the risk?”


Matthew Brown, a recovering addict from Portland, said he was among the people for whom marijuana was a “gateway drug” to more serious substances.

“I believe it is irresponsible to legalize recreational use of marijuana,” Brown said.

But advocates for the bills said the reality is that marijuana is already readily available in Maine.

They also said the state’s robust regulatory system for the eight medical marijuana dispensaries has created a framework for regulating retail operations, especially in light of the federal government’s inaction on the issue despite growing public support for legalization.

“I was convinced that we needed to come forward with state legislation,” Dion said.

“Maybe that is what the federal government has been trying to tell us with their memos and their hands-off doctrine, that you decide for yourself as states.”

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