Lewiston becomes a battleground as marijuana friends and foes prepare for statewide fight

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Lewiston Question 2 forum:

SunJournal.com will host an online forum with supporters and opponents of Lewiston’s legal marijuana initiative at noon on Monday, Oct. 27, at www.sunjournal.com.

Live Blog Election 2014, Lewiston Question 2: Recreational Marijuana Initiative
 

LEWISTON — Don’t expect the streets of Lewiston to turn into one big pot festival next month, no matter what voters do at the polls Nov. 4.

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A yes vote on the city’s marijuana initiative would decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana within city limits, but the proposed rule change stops right there: The initiative still bans public use of the drug and maintains all penalties for drugged driving.

“It would still be illegal, you know, to walk down the street and smoke a joint,” said David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project.

“It would still be illegal if you are under 21,” Boyer said. “I think it’s important for people to understand that this is for private use, for adults.”

The ballot initiative, backed by Boyer’s group, says nothing about how adults can get their 1 ounce of marijuana, or how potent the product can be.

Voters in South Portland will weigh in on the same issue at the polls Nov. 4. Boyer’s group hoped to have a third Maine municipality on the November ballot, but they could not collect enough signatures in time to get it on the York ballot.

Marijuana possession remains a criminal offense in Maine. An affirmative vote in Portland last year didn’t change that; yes votes in Lewiston and South Portland this November wouldn’t, either.

That’s a question for another day, Boyer said.

“After this November, we are almost exclusively focused on changing statewide policy,” Boyer said. “We’ll be drafting our 2016 initiative over the next three to six months, start collecting signatures in March, and we hope to make the ballot in 2016.”

The Lewiston and South Portland votes are merely setting the table for that statewide issue. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot at stake for both sides.

“What we fear with these votes in Lewiston and South Portland is people underestimating the risks,” said Scott Gagnon, director of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana coalition in Maine.

“Even if you are opposed to legalization, you may decide that this vote is not a big deal,” Gagnon said. “But it still sends a message to our kids: Marijuana is OK; there are no risks. But there are, and science continues to show that.”

Gagnon’s group has become the main opponent of legalization efforts across the country. It is a national debate, with marijuana advocates winning legalization in Colorado and Washington state in 2012. Voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., are considering similar proposals this year.

But Gagnon said he’s less concerned about the national impact right now.

“We are concerned about bringing an industry to this state that is driven by addiction,” Gagnon said. “If the marijuana industry wants to grow their business and increase profits, they need to market an addictive substance to more and more people.”

That’s exactly what’s happened in Colorado, said Bob Doyle of the Colorado branch of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Voters in that state approved recreational marijuana use at the polls last year.

Since then, the number of marijuana dispensaries has exploded, with marijuana-themed products, including gummy bears, breakfast cereals, sodas, cookies, cakes and brownies, becoming commonplace.

Colorado law bans the sale of those items to anyone younger then 21, but Doyle said it’s obvious they are aimed at kids.

“The tobacco industry had Joe Camel for how many years, and they said they were not targeting kids?” Doyle said. “Now the marijuana industry comes along and they want us to believe that gummy bears, cupcakes and soda are not targeting kids. Do we have to do this again?”

Gagnon said that should concern Mainers.

“Kids do pay attention to adults, and they do look at the decisions we are making,” Gagnon said. “And what we do does trickle down to them and impact their decisions. As adults in this community and South Portland, we have to think about the message we are sending.”

But Boyer and the Marijuana Policy Project said it’s a question of rights for adults. Adults should be able to decide for themselves.

“We can free up law enforcement from having to go after adults who have small amounts of marijuana so they can concentrate on more serious issues,” Boyer said. “We can give adults options. Right now, our laws and public health policy steer people toward drinking. They need to know that there are safer legal options for them.”

Each group tells a different story about what’s happening in Colorado. SAM points to increases in traffic accidents, spreading marijuana use among the state’s youth and a decline in marijuana’s popularity since legalization.

Boyer and the Marijuana Policy Project have statistics of their own showing lower domestic violence and overall violence in the state, and lower overall crime rates in the city of Denver since the state legalized medical marijuana in 2007, and ongoing popularity for the 2012 changes.

Skyler McKinley, deputy director of marijuana coordination for the state of Colorado, said the truth is somewhere in between.

“When you look at trends in public safety, they take years to really demonstrate what is affecting the crime rate or some of the larger implications,” McKinley said. “We’re only 10 months in.”

McKinley’s job was created to coordinate state departments as Colorado looks to regulate the budding marijuana industry. It took the state that long to create the regulatory process and get transportation, revenue and public safety departments to work together.

For its brand-newness, McKinley said, some things are going well. Not a single licensed marijuana dispensary sold to underage buyers during a state police sting in June.

“Our regulatory and enforcement machine has worked exceptionally well,” McKinley said. “We have seed-to-sale tracking on marijuana in the regulated market, and that dampens any public safety and black market concerns. By and large, it looks like the system we built brand-new for this and got running on Jan. 1 seems to be working.”

Revenues have proven to be moderate.

“We’ve brought in about $45 million in new tax revenue, and in terms of the state budget that’s not a lot of money,” McKinley said.

The state uses almost all of that new revenue to pay for marijuana regulation.

“If we use a sin tax to fund government, it can create a government incentive to use the drug; it’s true for alcohol, tobacco and now marijuana,” McKinley said. “Our philosophy is to use the money we bring in for marijuana to deal with marijuana. And it’s great because we can have an open conversation about it. We have money now and we can run ads to tell kids not to use or to tell people that if they drive high, they will get a DUI.”

But federal banking laws have proven to be a headache for the state. Since marijuana remains illegal nationally, banks and other financial institutions are reluctant to work with dispensaries, leaving them few legal options to save their profits.

“It’s not a Colorado-exclusive issue, it’s a result of federal drug laws, federal money-laundering laws and federal bank-secrecy laws that prevent financial institutions from engaging with these businesses without breaking federal law,” he said. “It is a violation of federal law to bank for a marijuana industry business. That’s well and good, but we need to get these companies access to legal banking.”

Most legal dispensaries and marijuana growers can’t get lines of credit to expand their businesses and many are operating on a cash-only basis. It’s a public safety problem for these businesses with copious amounts of cash on hand.

“A lot of them pay their taxes in cash,” McKinley said. “They just get duffel bags full of cash and take them down to the department of revenue or the IRS to pay their taxes.”

Overall, it’s an experiment and it’s still in process, McKinley said.

“The regulatory system seems to be working at keeping this from being too crazy,” he said.

Becky DeKeuster, executive director of the Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four dispensaries in Maine, said Maine and Colorado regulate medical marijuana differently. Maine’s medical marijuana law limits the number of legal dispensaries to eight. Colorado doesn’t have a limit.

“The state has done a good job of oversight, of holding the existing storefronts to a series of standards,” DeKeuster said. “I think Maine did a good job in allowing for flexibility in allowing municipalities to determine what they want — zoning, and where it could be located.”

She expects the same would be true for recreational marijuana.

“If Maine goes down that path, it would be foolish to look at what we are doing and what works,” she said. “The dispensaries now have to meet a very stringent set of standards and there is no reason that cannot be expanded to retail facilities.”

Boyer said a plan for statewide legalization is still in the earliest stages in Maine, so there’s plenty of time to get it right.

“We know that marijuana is not without its harms, just like alcohol, tobacco and gambling,” he said. “But we know that dangers of prohibition are worse. Prohibition is dangerous. It’s bad law, and it’s bad law that deserves to be changed and we have a history of changing bad laws in this country.”

Gagnon said voters can still turn it back.

“There is a narrative that marijuana supporters are using, and it’s that legalization is inevitable,” Gagnon said. “There are a lot of people I hear in Lewiston and in the rest of the state who don’t want this Colorado thing here. Three bills have come up in the State House and failed. There are a lot of indicators that show that people are not sold on this in Lewiston.”

Locally, the question remains whether there would be any change to marijuana enforcement.

City Councilor Leslie Dubois said it should be a discussion for city councilors. Dubois signed the petition to put the matter on Lewiston’s ballot.

“My position is that this is not a government issue, it’s a social issue,” she said. “I would like the citizens to decide. That’s where I stand.”

Mayor Robert Macdonald said police would continue to enforce state law if he has his way, yes vote or not.

“It’s illegal,” Macdonald said. “We don’t have to go out looking for it, but if it’s there, we are going to enforce the law. If somebody has it, they get a summons. If they are smoking it, they get a summons. If you go into an apartment and it’s sitting there, you summons them. It’s illegal under state law, so it’s illegal despite what kind of ordinance gets passed.”

Macdonald said the question alone aggravates him. It has the potential to harm Lewiston’s reputation, and he urges people to vote against it.

“Portland can pass and nobody cares, but if Lewiston does, they’ll point at us and say, ‘Lewiston is just a bunch of potheads,'” Macdonald said. “I don’t think this should even be a question. If you really want to look at legalizing this, you should go to the state.”

Portland voters adopted their version last year, allowing residents to possess up to 2½ ounces of the drug. Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his officers would continue to enforce state laws.

Sauschuck said last week that marijuana violations had increased since the November vote. His officers had issued 48 summonses in the past 10 months, compared to 33 issued during the 10 months leading up to the vote.

Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said it may not matter what voters say.

“I think it would matter if it was a statewide decision, and that may be the ultimate goal,” Bussiere said. “But the ordinance does not trump state law.”

Lewiston’s officers swear to uphold state law in their oath of office, Bussiere said.

“It can be contradictory, if a citizen’s ordinance says one thing and the state says another,” he said. “But to me, there is not a heck of a lot of choice. When you have that kind of conflict, the state law does trump.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

Lewiston, Question 2 language:

Shall the Ordinance entitled, Use of Marijuana by Persons 21 Years of Age or Older, be adopted? Yes or No.

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