LEWISTON — Advocates of a city ordinance change that would make the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana legal for those 21 and older said Tuesday they hope to mobilize young voters, especially college students at Bates, to their cause.
Voters in Lewiston and South Portland will decide similar ballot questions in November as the Maine Marijuana Policy Project works to increase pressure on the Legislature to make marijuana for recreational use legal statewide.
“Prohibition does not work, and it’s time for a change,” said Alexandra Gwillim, a Bates student who joined David Boyer, political director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Project. Gwillim said the prohibition on marijuana for recreational use was a contributing factor in what she called the “binge-drinking culture at college.”
“Drinking is a huge part of college and so is alcohol abuse,” Gwillim said. “Every weekend, I see students taken away in ambulances because of binge-drinking.”
Gwillim said the risks of using marijuana “dim in comparison” to alcohol, “except when it comes to the law.”
Gwillim said sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence were all consistently linked to alcohol abuse, but marijuana would offer a “healthier alternative.”
Boyer said the campaign intended to focus on younger voters because “younger folks see that marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked. It’s done nothing to stop the flow of marijuana into our communities. They see the effects of marijuana and alcohol firsthand and they realize that marijuana is safer than alcohol.”
Boyer said the project would increase its presence in Lewiston over the next month, including canvassing neighborhoods, delivering campaign materials and working to register voters. Boyer also said the campaign was increasing its presence in the community with paid advertising.
“We are going to get the message out there that law enforcement has better things to do with their time than go after adults with a joint in their house,” Boyer said.
If voters approve the measure, the city’s ordinance would change, but local police would still be obligated to enforce state and federal laws that make marijuana illegal.
Voters in Portland in 2013 passed a similar ordinance change, and the Maine Marijuana Policy Project says it hopes to put the question of legalizing marijuana to voters statewide by 2016, if the Legislature doesn’t act to do so sooner.
Boyer acknowledged that legalization at the city level is largely symbolic but noted it’s part of an ongoing effort to educate voters and the public about recreational marijuana use and the advantages of legalization.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational marijuana. Opponents and proponents of legalization in Maine point to those states as examples of what could happen here.
Supporters say the legalization in Colorado has led to millions of dollars in new state tax revenue and decreased crime. Opponents say the effort to expand the legalized marijuana market includes targeting children with edible products such as candy or baked treats that include marijuana’s active ingredient, THC.
Scott Gagnon, a local substance abuse counselor and the state coordinator of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said opponents are increasingly worried that the legalization vote in Lewiston will send the wrong message to children that using marijuana is safe or even healthy.
While a win for legalization advocates would be mostly a symbolic victory because selling and distributing marijuana would remain illegal, it would send a message about community tolerance, Gagnon said.
“That’s one of the things we are most concerned about,” he said. “Even though state and federal law would trump the local law, the message is still there.”
Gagnon said medical marijuana in Maine has already led to more marijuana abuse by children and teens and legal recreational marijuana would only add to that. He and other opponents have pointed to a variety of studies that show how marijuana use by children can impede brain development and even lower IQ scores.
He said proponents have mischaracterized how much time police spend pursuing petty marijuana crimes.
“There’s this idea that’s put out that police are out there spending an inordinate amount of time looking for people with marijuana, which isn’t the case,” he said.
Gagnon said more parking tickets are being issued than summonses for marijuana possession.
“Lewiston police are pretty good at prioritizing their work,” he said. “I don’t think they need the Marijuana Policy Project coming in and telling them how to do their work. They are doing a fine job; they have their priorities set. They are focused on the violence, the gang issues and the hard drug stuff that’s going on.”
Two city officials, City Councilor Leslie Dubois and Matt Roy, a member of the School Committee, say they support the ballot measure in Lewiston. The committee recently passed a resolution in opposition to legalization.
Roy said he and School Committee member Linda Scott voted against the resolution. The resolution urging voters to reject legalization passed largely because committee members feel the public schools are already seeing enough problems with increasing marijuana use among students.
“I don’t see it as the jurisdiction of the School Committee or any elected body to tell citizens how they should vote,” Roy said. He said the School Committee doesn’t even encourage voters to pass the school budget each year.
“Prohibition hasn’t worked,” Roy said. He said people are more likely to be addicted to and abuse alcohol than marijuana and that he believes legalization would reduce crime and eventually provide new tax revenues to the state.
Roy is running for a seat on the Androscoggin County Commission. Dubois is a Republican candidate for the Legislature.