What’s missing from the debate about legalizing marijuana in Maine?

Seriously, it’s taken me five days to figure out how to articulate my frustration with and disappointment in the discourse surrounding Question 1 on the ballot this November. Question 1 asks voters to consider legalizing the sale of marijuana for recreational use.

Marijuana seedlings.  Stock photo

Marijuana seedlings. Stock photo

I’ve been frustrated since I first started researching the language of the proposal, but my frustration reached critical mass while attending a town hall forum on the matter last week. WGME and BDN hosted the event, and the panel included two members speaking in support of the referendum — Alysia Melnick from the Yes on 1 campaign and Rep. Mark Dion— and two speaking against — Scott Gagnon from the No on 1 campaign and District Attorney Stephanie Anderson.

I’ll start by saying that I think all the hosts and panel members were very well intended; and the forum itself is not the sole source of my frustration. Further, I appreciate the idea of media sponsored discussions of important issues as a way to generate public interest. However, in my opinion, the forum’s discussion, like the general discourse around this question, was lacking.

Among my many concerns (too many to include in this post) with the proposed legislation is the designation of growing licenses available under a limited growth canopy cap. The language designates 60 percent of the licenses for large growers, and only 40 for small growers. The panel members speaking on behalf of the proposal insisted that preference was being given to caregivers and growers currently maintaining the medical marijuana program.

I would have preferred to hear someone explain how 40 percent of a market is “preference.” If someone held 40 percent of the shares in a company, that holding wouldn’t be considered a controlling share. Rather, the 40 percent shareholder would be susceptible to the decisions made by the party holding the controlling share.

I would have preferred that David Boyer, an audience member selected to ask the panel a question, had introduced himself as the treasurer for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the group behind the question and listed as funding the Yes on 1 website.

Sure, it was within Boyer’s rights to stand up at the forum and introduce himself as an audience member from Portland. However, only a half dozen or so people got to ask questions, and viewers might have benefited from knowing that two of them were linked to Melnick. Along with Boyer, Melnick’s father was selected to ask a question, too — her father did disclose his relationship before asking his question.

The forum also had opportunities for viewers to participate online. I would have preferred a more well-rounded answer to a social media question about potential impacts to the medical marijuana program. It was a difficult question to answer without any representatives from the medical marijuana program on the panel.

Thankfully Scott Gagnon did bring up the fact that evolving recreational markets in other states have had negative impacts on medical programs — a concern I’ve heard repeatedly from caregivers in Maine. I would prefer to see those kind of concerns parsed out by legislators and experts and representatives from the medical marijuana program, PRIOR to drafting recreational use language or town hall forums.

When an audience member at the forum tried to apply actual numbers to the legislation to see if the proposal works out mathematically, I would have preferred that proponents had actual numbers to use when dismissing his concerns. I can’t speak to the numbers used by the audience member, but in my opinion, voters would be well served by some real number crunching around the very specific language in the bill.

Speaking of numbers, I would have preferred that someone point out that the number of medical marijuana caregiver businesses in Maine has grown from 750 in 2011 to nearly 3,000 today. That kind of growth is a window on what kind of a boon a small business-driven recreational market would be for our communities. I’m no economist, but I doubt there are many small business sectors showing that kind of rapid growth.

Last, I would have preferred that the discussion at the forum reflected a working knowledge of Maine’s longstanding and very lucrative black market. I’ve been trying to figure out how to raise this concern without incriminating myself as someone who may or may not have longstanding knowledge of Maine’s longstanding and lucrative black market.

It just seems to me that, if entering the legal retail market is overly cumbersome and if tax and market controls result in an expensive product, the regular Maine smoker is still going to get it off so and so’s cousin up the road. Of course some users will shop at legal retail outlets, but I find it hard to believe all will.

So I did a little research about the black markets in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Surprise, surprise — black markets are still alive and well. A Newsweek article on the subject quotes an estimate that 59 percent of recreational marijuana users in Colorado buy their product on the legal market. The remaining 41 percent stayed on the black market.

Why is this important? Because proponents of the Question 1 proposal claim this legislation will free up law enforcement to worry about more serious crimes, like those related to the opiate and meth epidemics. No more policing a marijuana black market, only a legal retail one.

The author of an article in The Atlantic spent some time with a black market marijuana dealer in Seattle, more than 2 1/2 years after voters legalized recreational marijuana in Washington. The article opens with a bustling scene on a corner known for black market marijuana.

The author then describes how empty the corner is later when a police officer is parked nearby and how quickly it fills back up as soon as the officer leaves. It doesn’t sound like that officer was freed up to police more serious crimes.

If this proposal passes and fails to eliminate the black market, the burden on law enforcement will be increased not decreased. In that case, law enforcement would have to be trained in the new recreational use laws and the medical program laws, while continuing to have to police a black market and address the opiate and meth epidemic along with other crimes.

Policing black markets in Maine isn’t as easy as parking an officer on a street corner, either. It takes considerable more effort to figure out which so and so’s cousin is selling marijuana as a part-time job out of his house up which road.

If Maine is going to legalize recreational marijuana, it should be done in such a way that so and so’s cousin can easily enter the market and sell his product at a decent price because we do need to decrease the load on our overburdened law enforcement. The market should also be set up in a way that favors the nearly 3,000 caregivers currently operating and paying taxes in Maine.

I don’t know that the Question 1 proposal will eliminate the black market or protect the medical program as a legalized recreational market evolves over time. I don’t know that the language of the proposal is designed to maximize the positive impact on our woefully lagging economy.

I do know that the lack of nuanced discussion around this complex, almost thirty page long piece of legislation affirms my worries about the limitations of our referendum process.  

 

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.