Spokesmen square off in pot debate at Bates College

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LEWISTON — Would the passage of a local referendum to decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana for private use within city limits make the city safer or would it lead to greater use among teens?

Those are the two positions staked out by the spokesmen representing both sides of the issue that will be decided by local voters on Tuesday. The two men debated for an hour Thursday night before more than a dozen students in a classroom at Bates College’s Pettengill Hall. The forum was hosted by the college’s Public Health Initiative.

Like candidates for office, the two men traded barbs and cited statistics aimed at bolstering their respective arguments.

Students erupted into laughter at the mention of the nation’s president having been a pot smoker. David Boyer, Maine political director for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, also triggered chuckles when he said, in closing, “We shouldn’t have to wait for Congress and the federal government to fix this because they can’t fix anything.”

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Scott Gagnon, director of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana coalition in Maine said he wasn’t concerned about the casual adult user, despite the wording of the referendum that states the ordinance would apply only to ages 21 and older.

“If it’s in more homes, of course it’s going to increase” in use among children, Gagnon said. “It’s going to become a huge problem.”

Boyer disputed Gagnon’s logic, pointing to Portland’s similar ordinance as well as states that have legalized pot.

He said regulating pot would eliminate the black market, which is where underage users buy it now.

Even if Question 2 were to pass, pot possession would still be illegal under state and federal laws. The ordinance doesn’t address supply.

Gagnon said laws aimed at keeping alcohol and tobacco out of the hands of those who are underage have been “absolute failures.”

Boyer said marijuana is safer to use than alcohol, noting that no one has died from a marijuana overdose. Gagnon countered that the drug can still wreck lives and families.

People predisposed to addiction and substance abuse shouldn’t use marijuana, Boyer said, just as they shouldn’t use alcohol or any other addictive substance.

Boyer said usage rates of marijuana among teens is trending down in Colorado, which recently legalized the drug for adults statewide. Among the New England states, Boyer said Maine has the lowest teen marijuana use rate in spite of its older decriminalization law. He drew more laughter when he noted that crime rates were down in Colorado, but tourism and college application numbers had risen since passage of the law making pot legal in that state.

Asked what effect passage of the ordinance might have on driving, Boyer said operating a vehicle while high on pot would continue to be illegal in Lewiston. A blood test can detect levels of THC in the bloodstream, the principal psychoactive element in marijuana. He pointed to statistics that showed the number of fatal motor vehicle accidents in Colorado had declined since pot was legalized there. The percentage of those accidents involving drivers with traces of THC in their systems has increased, though.

Boyer said those indicators can be false positives because the drug can linger in the bloodstream for up to a month. Gagnon said the lack of good science on the subject is another reason for waiting before endorsing a drug that needs further study.

He advocated “waiting for the science to catch up.”

Gagnon argued that pot is an addictive drug that is often a secondary drug for teens who are abusing alcohol or harder and more dangerous illegal drugs. Those teens aren’t using pot instead of those other drugs, he said.

“We’re concerned about bringing an industry whose profits will be off of addiction,” he said.

Boyer said he didn’t consider marijuana a so-called “gateway” drug, and “neither does the White House,” he said, quoting from a 1999 Institute of Medicine study commissioned by the administration.

cwilliams@sunjournal.com

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