LEWISTON — Advocates hoping to make it legal to possess of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use have launched an effort to collect enough voter signatures to put the issue on a citywide ballot in November.
"The petition process will spark a public dialogue about marijuana and the need for more sensible marijuana laws," said David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project and spokesman for Citizens for a Safer Maine.
Lewiston supporters include a Republican candidate for the Legislature as well as a former city councilor and state representative, Stavros Mendros, who is also an active member of the GOP.
"To me, this is a simple issue of freedom," Mendros said. "I'm not a big fan of marijuana, I think smoking it is a bad idea personally, with all due respect, I think it's dumb, bad for your health. But then again, so is being fat and nobody's thrown me in jail for that."
Mendros said to him it is about the idea of allowing adults to make their own choices about a using a substance that many argue is less addictive and less dangerous than alcohol.
"It's not about selling drugs, it's not a gateway. I bought a Gateway computer and there was no pot in it," Mendros said. "I don't buy any of those arguments, it's about just letting people be free."
Passing an ordinance change in Lewiston, Maine's second largest city, is part of a stepping-stone approach to a statewide ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana statewide, according to Boyer.
He said public resources spent on enforcing and prosecuting marijuana crimes should be better spent on more serious issues, including violent crime and property crime.
"We have bigger fish to fry," Boyer said.
He and Mendros also said legalized marijuana would make it harder, not easier, for children to get marijuana. Mendros said if you ask teens which substance is easier to get, marijuana or alcohol, the answer is marijuana.
Mendros said because alcohol is tightly regulated and those licensed to sell it are monitored closely, it's more difficult for minors to get.
"It's about control, right now we have no control over marijuana," Boyer said. "I think everyone agrees that prohibition hasn't worked, just like alcohol prohibition, and the harms of prohibition outweigh the harms of alcohol and the harms of marijuana."
Boyer said once marijuana was sold by licensed, regulated and tax-paying businesses owners, it would be more difficult for minors to purchase pot.
But opponents to making marijuana legal say it sends the wrong message to young people and it normalizes drug use and abuse.
"It's going to cause far more issues than any it might try to solve," said Scott Gagnon, who is a substance abuse counselor and member of citizen group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization.
Gagnon said he has little doubt advocates for legalization will be able to collect the 859 voter signatures they need to put the issue on a citywide ballot in November.
"Our role in this is to tell the other side and make sure folks are aware of what this can bring," Gagnon said. He said other states, including Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been made legal, are seeing an uptick in youth marijuana use. Gagnon said Androscoggin County already has a high percentage of middle school and high school students who believe there is no risk from regular marijuana use.
Data that Gagnon provided to reporters Monday also showed that tax revenue collected on the sale of alcohol and tobacco did not cover the associated social costs and noted that Maine communities see $10 of costs for every $1 of tax collected.
Gagnon also noted that state law enforcement statistics show marijuana arrests make up only 6 percent of all drug arrests in Maine.
Some Lewiston school officials, including committee Chairman James Handy, have been outspoken opponents to making recreational marijuana legal in the city.
Handy is concerned about the messages being sent to young people around marijuana.
In a letter to the editor on June 7, Handy wrote that Androscoggin County was already wrestling with an uptick in marijuana use by teens and legalization would make that worse.
Public education officials point to evidence that shows marijuana use by young people can lead to cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems and may even lower overall intelligence scores.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, marijuana use by teens is the highest it has been in the past 30 years with one in eight eighth-graders nationwide saying they have used marijuana at least once in the last year.
Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster said just the advent of medical marijuana use in Maine has had an impact on students in schools and he worries recreational marijuana would only make matters worse.
"As medical marijuana has become more acceptable, too many parents have not taken the appropriate precautions to make sure that their child does not have access to the drug," Webster said. "I'm seeing more students being exposed to marijuana as users and/or distributors. Before we broaden adult usage of marijuana, I hope that we consider more how to protect our children from this drug as the research clearly shows that it is devastating to the development of the young mind."
Paul McCarrier, a spokesman for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, said the medical marijuana community also has concerns about recreational legalization. McCarrier said they don't necessarily oppose recreational legalization but want to ensure that medical marijuana patients retain the right to grow their own.
"We are very concerned about the Marijuana Policy Project's cookie-cutter approach to marijuana legalization because we have seen marijuana patients in both Colorado and Washington hurt because of their approach," McCarrier said. He said the approach in those two states was, "herding medical marijuana patients into the recreational markets, and the recreational market is taxed higher than the medicinal market."
McCarrier said legalization efforts they support include an approach that does not include a "sin tax" and preserves the right of an individual to cultivate for personal use without any special license or permit from the government. "It would be treated a lot more like an herb," McCarrier said.
Supporters of the recreational ordinance say legalization would produce a new tax source to help cover the costs of public education or other city priorities without further burdening property taxpayers.
"Cannabis reform is just one in a list of reforms we need for our state," Luke Jensen said Monday.
Jensen is running for the House District 58 seat in Lewiston, which is currently held by Rep. Michel Lajoie, a Democrat who is seeking re-election.
Jensen said marijuana was already widely sold on the black market and profits from those sales feed criminal activity. He said legalizing and regulating marijuana would make the city and the state safer and also allow for a new industry and a new source of tax revenue to develop.
"Lewiston voters know we could create millions in tax revenue that could get them a little relief as far as taxes go," Jensen said.
Those seeking to put the ordinance before voters will have 60 calendar days to collect the signatures. Matt Roy, a Lewiston School Committee member, and Leslie Dubois, a city councilor, also support putting the question before voters.
Portland voters approved an ordinance legalizing recreational marijuana in 2013 with 67 percent voting in favor of the new ordinance. State and federal laws making marijuana possession illegal supersede the local ordinance.
Boyer said the idea of passing local ordinances legalizing marijuana is an effort to get a statewide ballot initiative for 2016.
The group is also working to pass legalization ordinances in York and South Portland.