By The BDN Editorial Board
Posted Oct. 14, 2016, at 8:25 a.m.
Do you want to allow the possession and use of marijuana under state law by persons who are at least 21 years of age, and allow the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?
Maine is in the midst of a deadly addiction crisis that will likely kill at least one Mainer per day this year. At the same time, the state’s public health and addiction treatment systems have been decimated by an administration that cares more about punishment than prevention, intervention and rehabilitation.
Now is not the time to exacerbate these problems by legalizing marijuana. We recommend a “no” vote on Question 1.
In the first six months of this year, 189 Mainers died from drug overdoses, a 50 percent increase over last year. More than two-thirds of the deaths were attributable to heroin and fentanyl, which is mixed with or sold as heroin.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that people who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to become addicted to heroin. Therefore, easing access to marijuana is not in Maine’s best interests.
Question 1 would allow Mainers over 21 to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and six plants. Marijuana could be sold at state-licensed stores and social clubs. Maine would join at least four states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and Washington, D.C., in making recreational marijuana legal.
Proponents of legalization portray marijuana as a harmless herb that is used by responsible adults and people suffering from medical conditions that have defied treatment. Their arguments are based on the idea that marijuana should be regulated and taxed as alcohol and tobacco are. Decades of public health work to combat tobacco and alcohol addiction show this model has failed. Alcohol and tobacco use continue to be pressing public health problems that cut lives short and put people in danger.
Young people take their cues from the adults around them. Allowing marijuana to be sold in stores and smoked in new public establishments would send the wrong message that substance use is OK at precisely the time when Maine is struggling to combat it.
Ninety percent of addictions to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes begin before the age of 18, according to research by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Already, marijuana is the predominant reason for Maine youth to be admitted for substance abuse treatment.
There is reason for concern among adults, too. The potency of marijuana has steadily risen in recent years. Because research into its effects is tightly restricted by the federal government, the health consequences of these more potent strains of marijuana are not known. Easing those research restrictions should be a priority, with or without legalization.
Public health officials should play a strong role in drug and anti-addiction policy. But Maine’s public health system in recent years has been hobbled. More than half the state’s public health nurse positions are unfilled. Treatment centers have closed because of a limited state commitment to properly fund evidence-based treatment. And the regional coalitions that Maine has relied on for the past 15 years to reduce tobacco use among youth and undertake substance use prevention efforts have been dissolved. A substance use prevention structure that is still lacking in detail and will have to be built largely from scratch will replace it.
Question 1 would assign oversight of marijuana retail facilities in the hands of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which has no experience with cannabis. Maine’s medical marijuana program is overseen by the state Department of Health and Human Services. The referendum language also conflicts with and weakens existing state laws regarding marijuana and medical marijuana.
The tax rate set in Question 1 — 10 percent — is much too low. Washington charges a 37 percent excise tax. Colorado has a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent special state tax on marijuana sales. Cities and town can assess their own local sales taxes. Denver, for example, charges a 3.5 percent tax in addition to the state taxes.
The U.S.’s long war on drugs has been a dismal failure, and we are concerned about racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests and jail time in Maine. But opening the gates to legal marijuana in Maine through a referendum written to favor the pot industry is the wrong answer to that failure.
We urge a “no” vote on Question 1.