West Paris residents debate pot proposal

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WEST PARIS – Several residents opposed to making marijuana the lowest priority for law enforcement urged others at a public hearing Thursday evening to reject a proposed pot ordinance.

A group called the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative has collected enough signatures from West Paris voters to put its proposed law on the warrant for the March 3 annual meeting. The ordinance seeks “to make adult marijuana-related offenses the lowest law enforcement priority in the town of West Paris.”

The ultimate intention of the Lewiston-based advocacy group is to legalize the drug and to regulate and tax it, starting with softer laws like this one passed in a few Maine municipalities.

The ordinance also calls for a three-person committee comprised of volunteers from the town to oversee the implementation of the law, collecting data on all the arrests, seizures, investigations, and other activity around marijuana.

The public hearing was a forum for residents to air their opinions on the issue. Selectmen have already approved putting the article on the warrant.

Sandra Poland told fellow residents she had spoken to the Oxford County sheriff and was informed that the marijuana law was not enforceable because police must abide by state laws regulating illicit drugs.

“They are passing a meaningless ordinance that cannot be enforced by law enforcement,” she said. She added later, “If you want a law changed, you have to go to Augusta.”

But Jonathan Leavitt, the director of the initiative pushing the ordinance, a 39-year-old from Sumner, disagreed that the proposed local law was useless.

He argued that federal laws are changed by movements at lower levels, by people in towns and lower-level courts, who are often the first to grapple with new issues. He mentioned that the medical marijuana law, passed in 11 states, is not federally condoned.

And Leavitt clarified that the law does not stop police from doing their jobs. “This doesn’t stop anyone from getting arrested,” Leavitt said. “It never says anywhere in the law that an officer can’t arrest someone for what is now a criminal act. It’s simply about prioritizing.”

One town resident spoke in favor of the law. Erica Carson said, “I am in support of legalized medical marijuana, and I also think it is imperative to crack down on more serious problems.”

But others said they did not think West Paris should be one of the pioneer towns in Maine trying out this law.

“I have no objection to an open dialogue,” Rodney Abbott said. “But I do think that the basic question is, ‘Do people of West Paris want to be on the front line of legalizing marijuana?'”

Concerns were raised about the potential cost to the town, such as gathering the paperwork on the law enforcement activities around marijuana. Selectman Wade Rainey also pointed out that if the law is legally challenged, taxpayers would bear the burden of the lawsuit. Both the Sheriff’s Office and state police share the duties of policing the town.

Leavitt said related expenses would be minimal. “There is no cost to the town,” he said, adding that the paperwork and data collection on the police activity around the drug would be compiled and analyzed by unpaid volunteers.

“Fifty years from now, people will look at marijuana prohibition” as a huge mistake and a vast waste of resources, Leavitt said. “The policy does not work right now.”

Other speakers who criticized the proposed law said they supported the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In fact, two criticized the petition, saying they thought they were signing a medical marijuana petition.

The debate also turned to the impact of drugs.

Abbott said marijuana has deleterious effects, leading to short-term memory loss and a syndrome called “amotivational syndrome,” which he described as the outcome of people who habitually smoke the drug. “I know people in this community,” he said, “who do not have the things they could have had if it had not been for the use of marijuana,” like educations and careers.

Bertha DeHaas was one of three who spoke about what drugs did personally to her family, including alienating one and leading to the death of one of her grandchildren, she said. “I am against drugs and alcohol. They do terrible things to the family.”

“The bottom line is we’re not ready for us, especially not in this little town,” Wayne Theofrastou said.

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