2014-06-06 / Community

Marijuana debate lights up in So. Portland

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Broadway resident Brian Leonard, while speaking at Monday’s City Council meeting about his own drug and alcohol addictions, stumped for the legalization of marijuana, arguing against its perceived status as a “gateway drug” to harder narcotics. (Duke Harrington photo) Broadway resident Brian Leonard, while speaking at Monday’s City Council meeting about his own drug and alcohol addictions, stumped for the legalization of marijuana, arguing against its perceived status as a “gateway drug” to harder narcotics. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Last year, South Portland City Councilors waited several months to issue an opinion on a proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance designed to block the import of tar sands — and then did so only by circulating and signing an opposition letter outside of the public meeting process. But on Monday councilors took a different tack on a potential health hazard, handing down an official opinion in what amounted to a preemptive strike on a topic that promises to be at least as controversial as tar sands.

In a unanimous 5-0 vote, the city council adopted a resolution opposing the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. While no petition to de-criminalize marijuana has been presented, an attempt to gather signatures is slated to begin this week in an effort that promises to mirror last year’s successful pro-pot push in Portland.

Mayor Gerard Jalbert and Councilor Tom Blake were not present for Monday’s vote. However, Jalbert did attend a kick-off press conference for the anti-marijuana contingent held that afternoon in Mill Creek Park.

“It’s important for people to understand there are dangers to this drug and we really are concerned about this very much,” he said. “If it becomes more acceptable within the household, then that is what our kids and grandkids and our friends’ and neighbors’ kids and grandkids are seeing. Of course, they are going to mimic what we do.”

At the press conference, municipal, school and police officials, along with a bevy of substance abuse counselors and anti-marijuana advocates, announced their opposition to anything like what went down last fall. Just across the Fore River, 67 percent of Portland voters gave their assent to an ordinance that allows people age 21 and older to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana within city limits.

That vote was followed in January by an announcement from David Boyer, Maine state political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, who said similar legalization drives would be pursued this year in South Portland, Lewiston and York. Those petitions are preparatory, he said, to a 2016 citizens’ initiative to legalization marijuana for recreational use statewide.

According to South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins, efforts to contain the legalization craze to Portland’s side of the Casco Bay Bridge began almost as soon as Boyer made his announcement.

“Once we were aware that South Portland was going to be one of the communities targeted to enact an ordinance, several of us here at the police department discussed what we could do to help educate the public,” he said.

Those discussions led to creation of an informal stakeholders group, which culminated in Monday’s press conference. The press conference was called to release data that purportedly shows how marijuana use has increased among young people in South Portland since 2010, when the substance was legalized for medical use in Maine.

According to a Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey conducted in November 2013, 27.5 percent of students at South Portland High School admitted to smoking marijuana at least once in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. That number was up from 22.1 percent in 2011.

Meanwhile, 61.8 percent of students said it would be “sort of easy” or “very easy” for them to get marijuana, up from 57.5 percent who reported the same thing two years earlier.

A question not asked on the 2011 test alluded to the perception of harm from smoking marijuana. When asked on the 2013 version, 64.7 percent of South Portland High School students said they felt either “no risk” or only a “slight risk” from smoking marijuana as much as two to three times per week.

But the risk is actually greater than ever before, Googins said, pointing to a National Institute on Drug Abuse study which found that the potency of marijuana — as measured by how much of the principal psychoactive agent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) it contains — has grown from 4 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent in 2012.

“As advocates for the recreational use of marijuana pursue their agenda, it’s important that the community knows what’s at stake,” Googins said. “Greater potency means that smaller amounts can make someone higher, faster, and perhaps more intoxicated, than they are able to handle.”

According to Googins, “many” of the more than 8,000 deaths nationwide each year attributable to “drugged-driving” are caused by marijuana.

“These incidents will surely rise if marijuana becomes more readily available,” he said. “Legalization of the recreational use of marijuana does not make our community safer and will not add to our quality of life here in South Portland.”

Among the speakers at Monday’s press conference was Erik Valeriani, a resident at Day One Substance Abuse Center, located at 525 Main St. in South Portland.

“In my experience, marijuana is definitely a gateway drug,” he said. “Most people my age start smoking weed and it just carries on. It gets to a point where you can’t stop.

“A lot of my friends try and say it’s a lower-level drug,” Valeriani said. “And the fact that it is getting closer to being legalized is just another way to justify not doing anything except for smoking weed all day.”

However, Boyer discounted the gateway drug hypothesis, while also accusing the city council of perpetuating the idea that marijuana is more harmful than alcohol.

“We’re really disappointed that the city would go out of its way to oppose an initiative to reform a policy that most Mainers would agree has failed,” said Boyer, following the afternoon press conference. “Marijuana prohibition has been an abject failure, just like alcohol prohibition was. We’re disheartened that the council wants to continue punishing people for using a substance that’s objectively safer than alcohol.”

Boyer said his group would fan out this week to begin the petitioning process. Although sale and use of marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, and across the state for non-medical uses, the proposed ordinance will direct police officers in South Portland to “use their discretion” and not charge people older than 21 with possession, he said.

“We’ll be out collecting signatures at the polls on primary day, and at the farmers market, and going door-to-door,” Boyer said. “We definitely plan to get this on the November ballot.”

Whenever the issue goes before voters, much of the debate South Portland residents are likely to hear over the next few months promises to involve young people.

“Given the impact of mind-altering drugs on adolescent brain development, specifically on the areas of memory and problem solving, it’s imperative that we, as leaders and adults in this community, ensure that our policies, our laws and our beliefs are designed to protect our children’s development,” said Superintendent Suzanne Godin, at Monday’s press conference.

However, later in the evening, at the city council meeting, Scammon Street resident Melissa Thomas said that as mother, she supports legalization and regulation of marijuana, consistent with alcohol laws.

“I feel like this is all getting skirted under the rug with talk about our children,” she said. “Look, children shouldn’t be drinking whiskey, they shouldn’t be having sex, they shouldn’t be doing a lot of things that adults do. Covering up this issue through our children is wrong.”

Broadway resident Brian Leonard, a self-described drug addict and alcoholic, said marijuana is less a gateway to hard drug use than a gateway to a life of crime. Too many young people, he said, get “stuck in the system” following a conviction for marijuana possession. It’s the experience in prison, or on probation, he said, that leads to wasted lives, not the use of marijuana itself, which he called, “the least dangerous drug out there.”

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine echoed Leonard’s sentiments, citing statistics that show the impact of current drug laws on African Americans.

A June 2013 ACLU study found that blacks are more than twice as likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, given arrest rates per 100,000 people of each skin color — 461 for blacks vs. 216 for whites.

“It’s the same for poor people who have less resources when it comes to dealing with the criminal justice system,” said Rachel Healy, communications director for the ACLU of Maine.

“Like black people, they often are disproportionately affected by the punishment they get for the same offense, even though they may use at the same rate as other segments of the population,” she said. “What we need is a smarter, more sensible, more humane drug policy. It seems that the South Portland City Council is trying to shut the door on that conversation.”

Sticking to his line that marijuana use is less addictive, prone to fewer health and behavioral problems than alcohol — even citing President Barak Obama on the topic — Boyer also pointed out that, at their state convention this past week, Maine Democrats made marijuana legalization a plank in their party platform.

“We can legalize marijuana while protecting minors,” he told city councilors during the Monday meeting. “We can do both. Alcohol and tobacco use has gone down with teens because of regulation and education.”

But that opinion seemed to carry little weight with Googins, who was similarly unimpressed with Healy’s estimate of the $8.87 million cost of marijuana enforcement in Maine in 2010.

“I have no clue where they get that figure,” he said. “We certainly don’t break things down that way.”

Most marijuana convictions in South Portland, Googins said, come as companion pieces to other arrests, rather than as a result of specific enforcement for that drug.

All five city councilors present at Monday’s meeting spoke in favor of the resolution to oppose any legalization effort. However, it was Maxine Beecher who broke form and addressed the audience directly.

“I have to say I am disappointed that you folks want the world to think that marijuana is safe. It’s not,” she told the crowd.

A long-time advocate against drug abuse in all forms, Beecher was instrumental last year, during her time off from the council as a result of term limits, in banning Sea Dog Brewery from selling beer at the Buy Local Festival at Bug Light Park. Her history made her a natural invitee to join Googin’s stakeholder group, and she predicted Monday that the informal group will soon coalesce into a more formal political action committee.

“We will definitely fight this all the way,” she said. “The bottom line is that adults should be setting an example for teens, and I don’t think this is a good example. Just because something passes in Portland doesn’t mean it has to pass here.”

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