If Maine voters legalize marijuana this November, they will fill state coffers, help sick people and firmly control and regulate a drug that currently flourishes underground with no safeguards.
Or they will hurt kids, increase highway fatalities and cost — rather than save — time, money and resources.
It all depends on who you ask.
Question 1 seeks to allow the possession and use of up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana for people 21 and older. Although Maine allows marijuana use for specific medical conditions — there is no firm count, but it’s fair to say tens of thousands of Maine patients use it — this new law would open up access to the drug, regardless of medical need.
Although it would still remain illegal under federal law, federal officials have not been aggressive with states that have legalized either marijuana or medical marijuana. David Boyer, with Maine’s Yes on 1 campaign, believes that’s unlikely to change, even under a new president.
He said legalizing marijuana for people 21 and older would be a positive step for the state.
“The current system hasn’t worked,” he said. “Marijuana is readily available to the people that want it, but not necessarily the people that need it.”
Becky DeKeuster agrees. She is co-founder and education liaison for Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four of Maine’s eight state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and has a growing operation in Auburn.
She supports Question 1 because it would expand marijuana access to everyone, including people whose medical conditions — such as anxiety and depression — aren’t state-approved for medical marijuana.
“Or there are also patients who have conditions that are on the (medical marijuana) list but for one reason or another their primary physician chooses not to give them a certification,” she said. “If they can’t afford the out-of-pocket cost for a cannabis specialist doctor, then they don’t have access.”
Proponents also say regulating marijuana — and taxing it — would help the state and the state’s bottom line.
“I think it’s long overdue that we should be regulating this. Bring it out. It’s here and it has been here for many years,” said Dan Thayer, president and co-founder of Thayer Corp. in Auburn, which has a special division that outfits marijuana growing operations. “Why not collect a fair tax, regulate it consistently and get a quality that we can truly call it a medicinal quality.”
But opponents say legalizing marijuana will hurt the state’s young people, particularly under the current proposal.
Although the referendum says marijuana would be legal only for people 21 and older, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said this week that it also happens to remove existing legal language that makes marijuana possession a civil infraction for children.
Yes on 1’s people, including the campaign’s lawyer, disagreed with her assessment this week, but No on 1’s leaders say Mainers should be concerned. The Legislature could tweak the language of the bill if necessary, but marijuana opponents don’t have faith in that.
“I don’t think that we can guarantee the right thing would happen, or in a timely fashion. We don’t think it’s worth the risk at all,” said Scott Gagnon with No on 1.
Even if language was cleaned up, some believe legalization would still be a problem for Maine’s young people. They say kids will have greater access to the drug in a legal marijuana state, no matter what.
Lewiston school Superintendent Bill Webster said he already sees kids who get their hands on their parents’ medical marijuana. Legalizing all marijuana makes him “very concerned.”
“It will exacerbate the problem further,” he said. “We’re going to see more marijuana in homes readily accessible to the teenage population. I see the abuse becoming a greater issue in schools.”
And then there are the other reasons opponents believe legal marijuana would be unwise for Maine: creating a hazard for schools unable to tell whether a child’s gummy treats are candy or marijuana, causing a problem for employers who wouldn’t be able to stop employees from using the drug on their own time before work, causing more highway deaths as people drive high, and wreaking havoc on towns and cities that won’t have any idea how to regulate it.
“The other side talks a lot about the tax revenues. And it definitely, certainly, I’m not going to argue, it would make a lot of money for those companies that sell those products. But the other side of the ledger are the health care costs, the treatments costs, the resources that the municipalities, the state government, the law enforcement, the educators, they would need to deal with this new reality,” Gagnon said.
“It doesn’t come out in the wash. We know from alcohol and tobacco, for every dollar you make, you spend $10. This would just be a continuation of that,” he said. “It’ll make money for the marijuana companies, but the rest of us will be paying for that.”
Staff Writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this story.