Is legal marijuana easier for kids to acquire? Experts disagree

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PORTLAND — Opponents of legalizing pot in Maine on Wednesday night said the state’s medical marijuana law and Portland’s recently passed possession allowance are confusing children about whether the drug is dangerous.

But supporters of the legalization effort countered that regulating marijuana the same way governments do alcohol is the optimal way to keep it out of the hands of young people.

The forum discussion in Portland focused on youth access to marijuana in the aftermath of a November referendum in the city legalizing possession of small amounts of the drug locally.

The panel talk also took place at a time when marijuana advocates are gearing up to promote legalization efforts in South Portland, Lewiston, and York.

“If it’s in the home, of course (children) are going to have easier access,” said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, one of the panelists. “If you have a six-pack of alcohol in the fridge, it’s easier (to access) than finding somebody who will go down to the corner store for you and organizing all that. How do people start down on the road toward diverting prescription drugs? They get it from the medicine cabinet. They don’t go down to some deep, dark corner.”

The event was organized by the city of Portland and the 21 Reasons Steering Committee, a panel focused on deterring underage substance abuse.

Some who took part in the forum have been vocal supporters of legalization, such as the American Civil Liberties Union’s Grainne Dunne and David Boyer of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Others at the event, however, such as Scott Gagnon of the Maine Chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, represented groups that oppose a more widespread legalization of the drug.

Former local television news anchor Shannon Moss served as the forum moderator.

Portland voters last November approved by a wide margin a legalization measure for the city, which allows individuals 21 or older to carry 2.5 ounces or less of the drug in the Forest City.

Local leaders from the national Marijuana Policy Project have said they hope to put the question of legalization to a statewide referendum vote by 2016.

Boyer said on Wednesday night that by doing so, marijuana would be moved off the black market and into regulated storefronts where clerks will check identifications just like they do during alcohol sales. He reiterated his organization’s Portland campaign mantra that marijuana is less addictive, less toxic and is less likely to cause users to become violent than alcohol.

But Sauschuck rejected that reasoning, saying it’s a better argument for more regulation of alcohol than less regulation of pot.

“Is it safer than alcohol? That’s not saying a whole lot to say it’s safer than alcohol,” he said. “That’s an incredibly low bar. Marijuana may not cause an individual to be belligerent, but the trafficking of marijuana causes problems for us.”

While medical use of marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999, and larger scale medical marijuana dispensaries have been legal since 2009, the Portland ordinance is the first in the state to legalize pot for recreational purposes.

Those changes have muddied the issue for children, opponents on the panel said.

“The percentage of students perceiving marijuana as being only a slight risk or no risk at all has increased since 2009, when Maine’s medical marijuana law was passed,” Gagnon said.

“I think it continues to confuse our youth,” Sauschuck agreed. “They’re going to look at that and say, ‘The adults … have approved this, it must be safe, it must be OK to use.’”

Boyer countered that after marijuana was legalized by voters in Colorado, use of pot by young people dropped by 2 percent, while use nationwide increased by 2 percent.

Recreational use of the drug has been made legal in recent years by voters in Colorado and Washington. Voters in Alaska will decide whether to do so as well this summer.

“There just isn’t that correlation,” Boyer said.

Dunne said her organization believes that while marijuana may be unhealthy to use, the nation’s packed jails and massive criminal justice system are not appropriate regulators of what she described as “a public health issue.”

Possession and recreational use of marijuana remains illegal under state law, and all uses of the drug continue to be outlawed under federal law.

Sauschuck has repeatedly stated his department will continue to enforce state law, which supersedes the local ordinance. But he has maintained that marijuana law enforcement has long been a low priority for city police, noting that out of about 85,000 calls for service last year, Portland officers handed out only 54 civic summonses for marijuana offenses.

Likewise, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has said the local ordinance does not override the state and federal laws her office is obligated to follow, and she views the Portland referendum as “somewhat advisory in nature.”