Marijuana legalization: The other green debate
photos and text by Tyler Drumm
AUGUSTA -- State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, has an idea that has garnered bipartisan support, and has the rest of the state listening. Russell prepared L.D. 1453, an act to legalize and tax marijuana. Russell makes the point that the drug war has been unsuccessful, and that prohibition has not stopped people from using or growing marijuana.
In recent years, Maine has adopted quite a liberal stance on marijuana. In the state (though not federally) marijuana is "decriminalized." Users carrying less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana face only a civil violation and a fine ranging between $350 and $600, according to NORML-ME, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group seeking to reform marijuana laws in Maine. People who have registered with the state citing a specific, approved medical condition are exempt.
Decriminalization is very different from legalization.
A people's history of marijuana in America
Since the inception of our country, both hemp and cannabis had played a major role in the well-being of our populace. George Washington grew hemp for its strong, renewable fibers. Shipbuilders used hemp for rigging, settlers and pioneers used hemp canvas (the word canvas is derived from cannabis) to cover their wagons, and paper makers used hemp fibers to make extremely durable paper.
At the turn of the 20th century the views on this plentiful crop drastically changed. Washington, D.C., was the first of many communities to criminalize marijuana, starting in 1906. Mexicans were victimized for bringing marijuana into the States and smoking it after working in the fields all day. The government and the press started to play a racial propaganda game, claiming Mexicans would smoke marijuana and become violent. The most notable piece of propaganda is the movie "Reefer Madness," which depicts white people smoking marijuana and turning into insane-asylum candidates capable of murder.
Of course, such a thing was a complete fallacy, but newspapers of the day printed stories like this as though they were true. The real "war on drugs" came from a much more pedestrian motive: money.
There is evidence that one of the leading newspaper owners of the day, William Randolph Hearst, actively campaigned to criminalize marijuana. Not because he feared its effects, however. Hearst owned huge tracts of redwood forests in Northern California and wanted to use his trees for newsprint. To make that work, he had to somehow undercut the price of hemp, which was a much cheaper and more sustainable source for paper. Hearst had friends in high places, including presidents and governors, and his newspaper's tirade against hemp won the day.
Fast-forward to World War II, when the government changed its view on hemp and cannabis again. Suddenly hemp was associated with victory, as it could be grown and manufactured into different wares for the war overseas (see the film "Hemp for Victory," available on the Internet, made by the USDA in 1942). Cultivation of both hemp and cannabis resumed.
Not too long after that, the government decided hemp and cannabis should be illegal again. Why the change of heart? Marijuana was associated with the post-war Beat Generation, a population known for its pacifism and activism against the Cold War and the Korean War. Later, their younger brothers and sisters joined the protests against the Vietnam War and agitated for all kinds of social reform. Marijuana was not the cause for the social unrest of the postwar period, but it was certainly emblematic of the activism of young people, and as such, was seen as a threat. Since then, marijuana has remained illegal on a national level.
Marijuana is classed as a Schedule I drug by the federal government, which are drugs that are thought to have a high potential for abuse. Other drugs in this category include heroin, Ecstacy and LSD. Schedule I drugs are considered to have no acceptable medical benefits. Because marijuana is criminalized by the federal government at such an astonishingly draconian level, any push to legalize marijuana in Maine would have to deal with this one, significant, hurdle.
But, isn't marijuana harmful?
Over the course of the turbulent history that marijuana has had, there has been a plethora of misinformation about the harm of marijuana. During the Nixon presidency, the Heath/Tulane Study was conducted. The tests consisted of putting gas masks on rhesus monkeys and administering high-potency marijuana, equivalent to smoking 30 joints a day. At the end of 90 days, the monkeys began to atrophy and die. The scientists then dissected brains of both the monkeys exposed to marijuana, and the control, "clean" monkey. The test-subject monkeys that were exposed had considerable brain-cell death, while the clean one was normal. Common sense will tell you that suffocating a living creature for an extended period of time will cause brain-cell death. Did the "scientific" method of testing the monkeys get released with the report? No, not until a few years later in 1980 when NORML sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act. To this point, there have been no definitive tests to prove that marijuana use kills brain cells.
"I've heard that you need to smoke something like 15,000 joints in 20 minutes to get a fatal dose of Delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)." - Dr. Paul Hornby
OK, so maybe marijuana doesn't kill brain cells, but isn't it still dangerous to your lung health? Yes, and no. While intaking heated plant matter in the form of smoke isn't good for you, there are worse things that we put in our body on a daily basis. Tobacco, the easiest to compare to marijuana, claims 435,000 deaths annually. Caffeine is responsible for 1,000 to 10,000 deaths annually, aspirin 7,500, and alcohol 85,000. Any one of these legal substances is the cause of more deaths per year than marijuana, because marijuana has never been documented as the cause of death. Ever.
Furthermore, unlike alcohol, marijuana has not been shown to increase aggression or incite domestic violence.
The 'Gateway Drug' myth
Won't marijuana cause you to want to try other, harder drugs? Logic would say no, unless you're in the group of people that started drinking alcohol because drinking water "got you hooked on it." The reason that the "gateway drug" myth came to be was because of the inherent danger of the black market. Drugs circulate through various kinds of drug dealers. If a marijuana dealer has cocaine or LSD for sale, it's much more of an impulse action for someone to experiment. It would be much less likely for people to experiment with hard drugs by regulating and taxing marijuana. It's easier for people under the age of 21 to get marijuana than it is for them to get alcohol, and the drug dealer on the corner sure as heck won't card them.
What could marijuana do for the economy in Maine?
Russell estimates roughly $8.5 million in tax revenue annually could come from the legalization of marijuana. In addition to that, growers could hire employees to tend to the plants, clip them and harvest them. Jobs would be created, as well as tax revenue.
There would be other fiscal benefits to legalization, too. Twenty percent of the state's prisoners are in jail for minor drug offenses. Each of those prisoners costs the state $45,000 per year -- that is nearly triple what it would cost to send an inmate to the University of Maine and pay for room, board, and health care. Another large group of Mainers is on probation or in some other way under state supervision because of marijuana use. Also, divorcing the marijuana market from the hard-drug market would cut costs for addiction services and rehabilitation.
Getting the laws in sync
As long as marijuana is illegal at a national level, however, problems will exist between state and federal government, even if the bill passes. The U.S. government has taken severe steps in the past against states that deliberately flaunted federal laws. Possible repercussions include cutting federal funds for transportation, health care, and more. Another serious threat is the possible influx of drug-enforcement agents in the state who would begin enforcing federal drug laws. Maine would also be advised to look at potential international ramifications before taking steps to live outside federal law in this area.
In the end, both state and federal laws must be in sync, or it simply won't work. But the time may be right for the federal government to consider giving it a trial, especially in a state like Maine, where many of the factors that trouble drug enforcement in the rest of the country -- organized crime, gangs, etc. -- are less of a problem. If the time is right, it will be because the money is not there to support a huge and ruinous war on drugs when so many crying needs can't be met. Supporting L.D. 1453 in Maine may be a first tentative step toward normalizing drug laws, not only in Maine, but across the United States.