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Portland legislator pushes bill to legalize, tax marijuana in Maine

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Portland legislator pushes bill to legalize, tax marijuana in Maine

PORTLAND — Imagine walking into a neighborhood store to buy beer, wine, liquor and cigarettes. But on your way home you make one more stop – to buy marijuana, legally.

That's the vision Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, will outline at a press conference on Wednesday at Portland City Hall, when she introduces LD 1453: An Act to Legalize and Tax Marijuana.

The bill would legalize and regulate marijuana much the same way the state regulates the alcohol and tobacco industries. It would allow adults over 21 to cultivate, possess, purchase and use marijuana within certain limits.

The bill would also institute a 7 percent sales tax on recreational and medicinal marijuana transactions.

"It's an issue whose time has come," Russell said in an interview Monday morning at the Hilltop Coffee Shop on Munjoy Hill.

Russell said the legislation is supported by the Maine Civil Liberties Union and by a group of caregivers who grow and supply patients with medical marijuana.

Since the bill would legalize pot, it would affect Maine's medical marijuana law, making it unnecessary to get a doctor's permission to buy and use the the drug.

MCLU Public Policy Counsel Alysia N. Melnick called the proposal "smart policy." Investing scarce resources into criminalizing people who use marijuana is costly, inhumane and diverts funding from more important programs, she said.

"The 'war on drugs’ is quite costly in both financial and human terms, and the prohibition of marijuana has not measurably reduced its use," Melnick said. "This is a clear call for us to reconsider our laws and policies on marijuana."

Russell said current marijuana law "ensnares" good people, making it difficult for them to get jobs, apply for loans and the like.

She said her bill also has bi-partisan support in the Legislature, where it's co-sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples; Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro; Rep. Wayne Mitchell, who represents Penobscot Nation; Rep. Andrew O'Brien, D-Lincolnville, and Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland.

The bill has been referred to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, but as of Tuesday there were no public hearings or work sessions scheduled.

Russell said she expects opponents will argue that legalizing marijuana will open the door to more dangerous and addictive drug use.

But Russell doesn't buy that. She believes the black market is that gateway, not the marijuana itself.

"The market already exists," Russell said. "It's not the drug that's the gateway, it's the drug dealer."

Russell said addiction to marijuana, like other legal drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, should be treated as a mental health issue, rather than a criminal issue.

South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins, who is also president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, could not be reached for comment.

Russell said the 20-page bill addresses concerns that have plagued other legalization efforts. She said it outlaws use by minors and marketing efforts geared towards children.

The bill would allow people over 21 to possess up to a pound of marijuana and paraphernalia. An adult could produce and store marijuana for personal use within a 75-square-foot area of their home, and allow them to purchase up to 2.5 ounces or seedlings from a licensed dealer.

The production and storage limits would be greater for commercial producers. They could produce and store marijuana in a 2,000-square-foot area.

The bill would require the state commissioner of public safety to develop administrative rules by Dec. 11, and the tax structure would take effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

Russell said she hopes the bill will become a model for other legalization efforts across the country. For that to happen, however, she said "mainstream" residents are going to have to step forward, shed the fear of being associated with the "stoner" community, and speak their minds.

"Why are we enforcing a policy we don't agree with and not collecting taxes?" she said.

Russell pointed to a 2006 report published in The Bulletin of Cannabis Reform, indicating that marijuana was the state's No. 1 cash crop and in the top three of 30 states.

According to the report, Maine produced about$122.8 million worth of pot a year from 2003-2005. A 7 percent tax would have resulted in $8.6 million in annual revenue for the state.

Russell said she knows it will be challenging to get the bill through the typically conservative Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. But, if she only gets one vote recommending passage, Russell said she would push for a floor vote.

Even if the bill becomes state law, it will be in direct opposition to federal drug law. But Russell said Maine is already out of compliance with federal law, since medical marijuana is already legal in the state.

"We need one state to do it and think other states will follow," Russell said. "Then the federal government (will have) no choice."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecatser.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings