Smoke signals



Political observers are starting to identify how the nation’s two political parties have marginalized the majority of moderate voters, the voters who comprise the largest block of citizens in our country. Changing patterns — with extreme positions both left and right — leave a ripe middle ground that is being plied, in Maine, by outside interest groups intent on exploiting our state’s too open referendum process.

Working to enact important social and legal changes that cannot or will not pass muster in the legislative process — a process that requires compromise and considers the legal ramifications of new laws — Maine has been inundated with feel-good referendums beset with complications that later require fixing. At the very least, they burn legislative time. Urgent budget and policy issues languish while lawmakers struggle to make sense — and then law — out of intrinsically flawed initiatives.

At the forefront today is Maine’s referendum to legalize recreational marijuana. Many voters would like to see reduced restrictions on marijuana use, starting with decriminalizing personal use. But there is abundant public alarm at how Maine’s new law actually allows marijuana use so openly, and without consequences, while doing little to provide an adequate safety net from the marijuana abusers who are driving, using pot before work, or even during work.

The one-paragraph initiative description put before Maine’s voters did not dive into the numerous details of how a “yes” vote would affect the greater society. Capitalizing on our Yankee spirit of independence, the drive for support of legalization amassed great support. Now reality is setting in — especially since Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Justice Department policy of not interfering with marijuana sales in states where the drug was deemed legal. Since the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug, the states’ positions are contrary to national policy. Of course, the state legalizations always have been contrary to federal law, but the Obama Justice Department memo established “Don’t look too close” as the official attitude.

That position was untenable legally, and now has been erased.

The argument for states’ rights has validity. State sovereignty matters in an era of federal overreach. But the legalization of marijuana is a different debate. Proponents of Maine’s new pot law state that opponents and legislative revisers are denying “the will of the people.” But that’s an unconvincing argument. An issue as contentious as legalized marijuana cannot be resolved with a simple majority vote. This process only thrusts the issue onto the Legislature, where the partisans must work with the majority middle to modify and rebuild the law so that it is workable for all.

The facts now available from states such as Colorado, which already legalized marijuana, paint a less rosy outlook of the impact of expanded marijuana access and use. The consequences of legal marijuana are real. The costs for decriminalizing marijuana are measurable — both positive and negative. Creating sound law that addresses all concerns, including federal censure, is the practical, reasonable way forward. It is a job best handled in our Legislature, not at the ballot box, where emotion and salesmanship overtake sober reflection.