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High Stakes: Maine Law Enforcement Unanimous in Opposition to Pot Referendum

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Patty Wight
/
MPBN
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck in August.

Maine’s law enforcement community is largely unified in its opposition to Question 1 on the fall ballot, which creates a framework for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

We continue our series on the possible effects of the referendum with a look at some of the issues being raised by police and prosecutors.

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Some in Maine law enforcement say that the measure does not do what supporters had argued it would as they gathered signatures to put it on the ballot — that is, treat marijuana the same as alcohol. They point to language that they say is unclear, and to provisions that will have unintended consequences if Question 1 is passed.

In fact, they challenge the premise that pot should be regulated and controlled like alcohol and tobacco.

“To be honest, that is one of the silliest things I have ever heard,” says Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. “If you look at that, and say if you are looking at alcohol and cigarettes as the standard we want to abide by, then we are doing it wrong. Because those two substances in and of themselves — the societal impacts of those are drastic, to say the least.”

Sauschuck points to the problems caused by drunk drivers and to the cost and effort of law enforcement to prevent cheap alcohol and cigarettes from coming into the state from other areas of the country.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson says Maine already has enough problems dealing with a significant drug problem.

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Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson (left) in Oct. 2007.

“We already have a terrible, overwhelming substance abuse crisis. Why do we want to make that problem larger?” she says.

That’s an opinion voiced by many in law enforcement.

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association points to what has happened in other states that have legalized pot as the reason that its members oppose passage of Question 1. They have launched a public outreach and social media campaign opposing the referendum.

“Data coming out of Colorado is staggering. Marijuana use has increased among both adults and youth,” says Ed Toland, Falmouth police chief and president of the association. “Fatal accidents, impaired drivers under the influence of marijuana and emergency room admissions have significantly increased.”

A Colorado study released earlier this year indicates that marijuana use among college-age adults — 18- to 25-year-olds — has increased from about 20 percent in 2006 to about more than 30 percent in 2014. The numbers were lower for youth in Colorado, but usage rates did increase from 7 percent to 12 percent over the same time period.

There are also studies indicating that impaired driving has increased in states that have legalized marijuana, but the data are not clear cut. Often alcohol is also found in the blood of those arrested for impaired driving, and Maine police say they’re concerned that because there is no scientific standard to determine impairment by by marijuana, they’ll have to rely on field tests and observation.

Col. Robert Williams of the Maine State Police says that will likely mean fewer convictions.

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Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Maine State Police Col. Robert Williams (left) in April 2015.

“The problem with that is in today’s society, people want science. They want science to back it up and if there is no science, we will struggle to get convictions,” he says.

And then there are also what police see as the holes in the legislation as drafted.

“There is no law that prevents a 21-year-old from giving that, furnishing that to a 20-year-old, so it’s not written as the alcohol laws are,” says Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association.

Merry says that if the legislation is approved by voters, lawmakers should swiftly act to make sure that marijuana is truly treated like alcohol under state law. He and others say if the referendum passes, he will be asking the attorney general for guidance on how to deal with potential loopholes.

Attorney General Janet Mills has started to review the proposal for language that could have unwanted consequences.

“I don’t honestly think people want to vote for a bill that intentionally or unintentionally repeals that part of the juvenile code that makes it a juvenile offense to possess a certain amount of marijuana. I don’t think that is intended, but it is there,” she says.

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Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills in July 2010.

Mills says as written, the measure does not address those sections of Maine law aimed at protecting kids from exposure to potentially dangerous substances.

“It doesn’t regulate how and when you can expose kids to marijuana, whether it is in gummy bears or chocolate brownies or blowing smoke in their faces,” she says.

“There are some things that we can learn from other states,” says Alysia Melnick of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Melnick says steps can be taken to protect kids.

“For example as to how we package and market edibles to ensure that we are not marketing to youth is something that’s in our proposal here in Maine, and it’s something that we really care about,” she says.

And supporters of the referendum point out that it took months for the Legislature to craft laws and rules around medical marijuana, and that the same process can be done to plug any holes in the law that would be established under Question 1.

Norm Stamper, a retired Seattle police chief who is also a member of LEAP, a national group that supports the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, says police in Maine will adapt to the new law as they did in Washington State, which legalized marijuana four years ago.

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Credit TEDxRainier Seattle / Flickr/Creative Commons
Norm Stamper in 2013.

He says all criminal drug laws have to be updated in order to keep pace with changing science.

“Science obviously needs to catch up, catch up with practice as well as any new laws that are passed,” Stamper says. “But, I have not heard of any police officer who has talked about an increase in workload.”

Mills says Question 1 allows a nine-month period for adoption of rules and regulations to implement the proposal. She hopes that will be enough to set up a new regulatory structure and make any other needed amendments to the state’s criminal laws.

To read the rest of the series "High Stakes: How Legalizing Pot Could Affect Maine," click here.