February 22, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Feeling good about legal pot

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, detects the scent of social change in the air.

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"This actually has a shot at passing," says State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who's hoping to make Maine the third state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer


Tune in to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. today to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

And darned if it doesn't smell like marijuana.

"This actually has a shot at passing," Russell said this week as she prepared to roll out a bill that would legalize small amounts of pot not just for Mainers who use it for medicinal purposes, but for those who simply want to get a good buzz on.

Think she's crazy?

Think again.

For the second time in as many years, Russell is asking her fellow lawmakers to consider that: a) the war on drugs is a lost cause when it comes to keeping marijuana out of the hands of our kids; b) the ton of illicit money now spent on pot is an opportunity lost for Maine's economy and the state's squeaky-tight treasury; c) police have better things to do than run around Maine with their noses in the air and; d) the best thing lawmakers could do in these ever-so-contentious times is gather in a circle beneath the State House dome and pass around a big fat doobie.

OK, that last one was just my wishful thinking. Still, Russell isn't blowing smoke when she insists that the times they are a changin' when it comes to the erstwhile evil weed -- not just here in Maine, but all over the country.

To wit: In November, when Maine voters became the first to approve same-sex marriage at the polls, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized pot by near-identical majorities of just over 55 percent.

In December, President Obama told ABC's Barbara Walters that he has no plans to go after those two states – or the 16 others that allow medicinal use of marijuana – despite the fact that they're technically violating federal drug laws.

"We've got bigger fish to fry," Obama observed.

And just this week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee emerged from a closed-door meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and told The Seattle Times that the chat was "very satisfying" and a "confidence builder" as his state goes about implementing its new law.

In other words, the feds clearly are mellowing out on the pot issue.

And as they do, the state-based, legalized-marijuana juggernaut is fast altering the nation's social landscape much as state-based, same-sex marriage decisions have in recent years.

Which brings us back to Maine -- and some three-year-old numbers that speak volumes about how we as a state just might be feeling about marijuana these days.

Remember the off-year election in 2009?

That was the year conservative voters flocked to the polls and, by a solid 53 percent majority, summarily rejected same-sex marriage.

Yet in that same election, those same voters approved the expansion and implementation of Maine's 10-year-old medicinal marijuana law by a whopping 59 percent.

Translation: Legalized marijuana, at least when used medicinally, was not as big a deal to Maine voters in 2009 as same-sex marriage was.

Three short years later, same-sex marriage is the law of the land.

So it's hard not to wonder: Is legalizing the possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana for any Mainer 21 or older another idea whose time has come?

"The question of whether or not to legalize marijuana has already been answered (with Maine's medical marijuana law)," Russell noted. "We've had the tipping point."

What's more, she said, marijuana advocates fully intend to launch a citizens initiative calling for legalized pot in 2016.

Russell would rather get out in front of that often imperfect process and pass a law – still subject to a referendum this fall – that nips any unintended consequences (as it were) in the bud.

(Continued on page 2)

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