LEWISTON — A new coalition aimed at defeating a November ballot question that will ask Maine voters to make marijuana legal for recreational use under state law is growing, according to a coalition leader.

Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities includes parents, health experts, clergy and police, said Scott Gagnon, the coalition’s spokesman and the chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which worked to successfully defeat a Lewiston ballot question to legalize marijuana in that city.

“This initiative to legalize marijuana poses significant threats to our youth and communities,” Gagnon said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “The marijuana industry has crafted an initiative that would see shops opened in neighborhoods all over Maine, selling potent pot gummy bears and cookies, and other highly addictive and dangerous products. These products have led to huge increases in (emergency room) admissions in Colorado, including admissions of preschool-aged children.” 

Gagnon said there are no penalties, criminal or otherwise, in the initiative for selling or furnishing marijuana to minors, and no penalties for adults who provide a place for minors to consume marijuana.

But supporters of the ballot question, including David Boyer, a spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said the law already prohibits the sale of marijuana, as well as alcohol, to minors. 

“It’s already illegal; that’s why we didn’t put it in there,” Boyer said. “It’s going to remain illegal.”

He said Gagnon’s claims that emergency room visits in Colorado have spiked since that state legalized recreational marijuana are also misleading. Boyer said the claim is based on studies that are inconclusive and are not necessarily reflective of cause and effect.

“The study can’t peg marijuana as the cause of the visit,” Boyer said.

Part of the result of Colorado legalizing marijuana is people are more likely to admit to using it when asked about it by a health care provider, Boyer said.  

Gagnon’s group also pointed to several other problems it sees with legalizing marijuana at the ballot box, including the lack of penalties for those who sell to minors with fake identification, the creation of “pot clubs” that would be unregulated by local officials and the inability of employers to discipline employees who use marijuana.

Gagnon also said the ballot question could lead to convicted drug dealers operating marijuana businesses, because the proposed law change does not prohibit it.

The ballot question also includes no new regulations or limitations on edibles to prevent marketing marijuana to youths and no limitations on potency, packaging or dosing, Gagnon said. 

Also under the ballot question, marijuana would be regulated by the Maine Department of Agriculture, which has no background in regulating addictive substances, Gagnon said.

“In many ways, this initiative is worse than what was passed in Colorado,” Gagnon said. “This is an initiative written to maximize profits for the marijuana industry while increasing harms to our youth and communities. This would be Big Tobacco 2.0, but Mainers have the power to prevent it.”

Boyer said increasing numbers of Mainers, as reflected in recent polling data, disagree, with as many as 55 percent of voters saying they favor legalization.

“Look, there are lots of things we have for adults that aren’t for kids,” Boyer said. “We think by controlling it and regulating it, it is actually going to work out better.”

Boyer said laundry detergent pods, which have been blamed for at least two deaths and dozens of life-threatening poisonings since 2013, are a bigger hazard for children than legal marijuana.

“And no one is worried about that; no one wants to do anything about that,” Boyer said.

Gagnon said Mainers need to know that the marijuana of 2016 is not the marijuana of 1960 and is often six to 10 times more potent.

Boyer said legalization in Maine would come with increased tax revenue for the state, money that would be directed at education and public service announcements, urging the responsible use of marijuana.

He said the campaign in favor of legalization looked forward to a “spirited campaign and we hope that it stays in the realm of science and science-based evidence.”

“Marijuana is far safer than alcohol and if we can trust adults to responsibly use alcohol, then there is no reason we can’t trust adults to responsibly use marijuana,” Boyer said.

Gagnon said that given Maine’s ongoing crisis with opioid overdoses, Maine doesn’t need yet another pathway to addiction.

“Legalizing and commercializing marijuana is not the Maine way,” Gagnon said. “This is not the way we want life to be for our youth and communities. “

Voters in four states — Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska — and Washington, D.C., have made recreational marijuana legal. 

In 2013, voters in Portland voted to make recreational use of marijuana legal under city ordinance and South Portland followed suit in 2014, but Lewiston voters rejected a similar ballot question that same year.

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