Just over a year ago, a citizen referendum question drew enough statewide votes to legalize personal use of marijuana. Passage came after several failed attempts to do so through the Maine Legislature.
Today it is much clearer why the Legislature never could agree on how to implement legalized marijuana and why citizen-backed referendums are a bad way to enact complicated laws. These complex topics have become emotionally charged. They are laid out for voters with few facts, even fewer of the consequences and few, if any, of the details, funding or structural guidelines necessary to enact multifaceted regulations. Forcing these initiatives back to the same Legislature that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, act in the first place results in compromised law-making that displeases advocates and frustrates citizens.
Without doubt, Mainers are very much in favor of medical marijuana and its potential to safely aid the pain and suffering of afflicted individuals with cancer, PTSD and other challenges. Yet it is also readily apparent that far too many Mainers are not yet ready to embrace recreational legalization of marijuana, as community after community passes bans, prohibitions and moratoriums on the retail sale of marijuana, marijuana-based products and social clubs. From Sullivan to Tremont to Surry and towns in between, recent municipal votes have all come back negative on expanding marijuana access beyond the medical realm. This local resistance reflects the apprehensions expressed by lawmakers in their reluctance to legalize unrestricted marijuana access.
Advocates claim tampering with marijuana legalization thwarts the “will of the people.” Which people? Not the people in Ellsworth, Blue Hill, Surry, Tremont, Sullivan, Bucksport, Osborn, Verona Island, Lamoine, Gouldsboro, Winter Harbor, Sorrento, Brooklin, Deer Isle, Stonington and Sedgwick. They’ve all put the brakes on retail sales.
The fact that state efforts to legalize marijuana consumption run smack into federal law adds to lawmakers’ consternation. Governor Paul LePage has been steadfast in his opposition to legalized marijuana for this reason and several more. Data from states that have legalized marijuana use point to troubling trends of increased crime rates, increased automobile accident rates plus increased death rates. With the referendum law voters passed, the Governor points out other shortcomings, such as the substantial impacts on existing medical marijuana laws, opposing tax rates, regulation loopholes, and other regulatory oversight gaps that leave the state in a precarious enforcement position — even before federal issues arise.
In a recent address to Maine’s citizens, the Governor outlined his cautious reservations about the conflicts with legalized marijuana expansion in Maine. LePage stated, “Maine is now battling a horrific drug epidemic that claims more than one life every day due to overdoses caused by deadly opiates. Sending a message, especially to our young people, that some drugs that are still illegal under federal law are now sanctioned by the state may have unintended and grave consequences.”
It appears that many citizens agree with the Governor, realizing that the complications of legalized marijuana are far more serious and consequential than a simple feel-good vote. We must also remember that citizens don’t make laws. Lawmakers are in the Legislature. If we continue to foster badly conceived and initiated laws through the referendum process, further forcing the Legislature to make wholesale modifications, we undermine our own democracy and open ourselves to further exploitation by groups and causes using Maine’s loose referendum process for questionable and life-altering causes.
The Governor is correct; it is imperative that we get the marijuana law right before enactment.