The resounding vote last month by statewide referenda in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana has fired up new impetus to allow Maine voters the same opportunity. That was reflected by the announcement of State Representative Diane Russell, formerly of Bryant Pond but now of Portland, of her intent to re-introduce a bill to, in effect, put marijuana on a par with alcohol use under state law. The bill would thus authorize its use, subject to taxation, by those over 21. Though a similar bill Russell sponsored two years ago lost 107 to 39 in the House, Russell expects to pick up more support for the measure in the upcoming session, in part because she has attached a referendum rider to this year’s bill.
Maine has long been in the vanguard of the de-criminalization arena. As far back as 1976, for example, the state became one of the first in the nation to take the criminal bite out of possession for small amounts -- usually less than an 1¼. Maine then substituted a “civil violation” for which a forfeiture of no more than $200 could be assessed (the maximum has since been increased to $600.). Even today, only 13 other states have taken this step.
In 1979, the Maine Legislature, then controlled by Republicans, passed a law endorsing medical marijuana. However, since the bill required that supplies of the drug had to be first made available through the government it never went into effect.
In 1999, we were only the seventh state to legalize marijuana use for certain medical purposes. This law too had limited practical effect, however, due in part to the requirement patients grow their own supply of the drug. The law also strictly confined the conditions for which it could be used to only a few severe or chronic ailments, such as cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.
The restrictions of the 1999 law thus triggered a significant expansion a decade later in a 2009 state-wide referendum. The 2009 law broadened the list of conditions for which the drug could be prescribed. It also provided a framework for licensing dispensaries through which it could be more widely distributed. Today, we’re still one of only 18-states that has voted to authorize medical marijuana, Massachusetts only joining the ranks earlier this year.
Even if the Russell bill passes, count on the state’s marijuana laws to continue to meander around in a fog of confusion. That’s because federal law -- which has long outlawed the substance -- will technically trump inconsistent state mandates on the issue. The expansion of state laws, however, may have the effect of influencing federal policy.
Rise of the Independents
Maine’s untethered approach to marijuana - attempting to buck federal law on the subject - is not the only expression of the state’s independent outlook. Almost lost in the sea of attention given to our sending Angus King to the U.S. Senate is the large number of state legislative independents elected this year. Taking the oath of office earlier this month were five elected without carrying a major party banner. In the Senate it was Richard Woodbury, re-elected to a second term from the Yarmouth-Falmouth area. He is joined by Ben Chipman, now serving his second term from Portland, Winterport’s Joseph Brooks, Newfield’s James Campbell, and Friendship’s Jeff Evangelos in the Maine House. Brooks was originally elected for three terms ending in 2002 as a Democrat while Campbell was previously elected to four terms as a Republican that ended in 2010. They are among only 18 nonmajor party legislators of the 7,383 throughout the entire United States this year. Indeed, Maine is one of only five states that elected any nonaffiliated legislators at all. Only Vermont, who elected 10 to its state’s legislature, proved more hospitable to them. Even there, however, six of those elected were in an established political party, albeit not one of the two major ones, they being in the Vermont Progressive Party.
The election of so many independents in Maine was a watershed in our own history. It’s been just 100 years since more outside-the-major-party-system candidates have marched across the threshold of our own capitol. As with this year, those elected in 1912 were for the most part from smaller communities, hailing from Livermore Falls, Greene, Rangeley, Vassalboro, Edgecomb, South Paris and Canton.
What sets those in the class of 1912 legislators apart from this year’s in Maine, however, is that like most of those now in Vermont, they were registered with a political party. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the party they belonged to was referred to by an identical name. In 1912, the Maine solons were like those a century later in Vermont, members of the Progressive Party, though in Maine a century ago it was a break-away Teddy Roosevelt offshoot of the Republicans.)
In any event, the votes of the Maine Progressives in 1912 proved crucial in breaking a 72 to 72 major-party deadlock that year, the Progressives casting their lots with the Republicans to enable the GOP to name the House Speaker. In the same era, Progressives also soon flexed their muscles in Maine city elections. In 1913 they elected Alvin Fowles mayor of Auburn. By 1914 a coalition of Progressive, Republican and Citizen parties elected Dr. Robert Wiseman Lewiston’s mayor over the Democratic establishment.
This year’s non-affiliates will not likely tip the balance of power in the same way as their brethren from a century ago. However, they may prove crucial on partisan issues before the upcoming session. If the four House members ally themselves with the 89 Democrats, for example, they would then need only eight Republicans to join with them to enact emergency and bond issue legislation not to mention the opportunity to override possible gubernatorial vetoes in the House. A shift of four Republican senators would have the same effect in the capitol’s upper chamber.
Even if they don’t, however, they still have potential influence. As longtime political columnist Jim Brunelle observed a few years ago, “Only a handful of the thousands of bills introduced in any given session are regarded as strictly partisan. Any legislator has a chance to shine by exercising the art of persuasion on issues that are basically up for grabs.”
In any event, let’s in this era of phenomenal challenges for our state government hope that all legislators, regardless of their political alignment, are successful in achieving productive and meaningful treatments to our governmental ailments.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine's political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com