By Phillip Smith
If Maine residents want to legalize marijuana via the popular vote, they may have to do it themselves. Last Friday, a bill that would have called for a referendum on marijuana legalization fell four votes short in the House. On Monday, it was defeated more decisively in the Senate.
The bill, LD 1229, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland), was a detailed tax, regulate, and legalize marijuana measure when first introduced. But, with a lack of support among colleagues, the bill was amended to merely call for a popular referendum. Even that watered down version couldn't pass the House.
During debate on the bill last Friday, Russell argued that if legislators failed to act, it was likely that activists would put a legalization initiative before voters through the citizens' initiative process, and that then, lawmakers would have no say.
"I believe this is the smartest, most rational way forward... to ensure we're the ones driving the bus to do it," Russell said.
Support for and opposition to the bill wasn't a simple party line affair, with some Republicans speaking for it and some Democrats opposing.
"We have a society that's been hypocritically fighting this war for years," said Rep. Lance Harvell (R-Farmington). "In a democratic republic, the will of the people will be expressed."
"I have seen lives ruined by addiction," said Rep Gay Grant (D-Gardiner). "I am not ready to raise the white flag on one more opportunity to destroy lives."
"You actually can't smoke enough marijuana to kill yourself. You'd fall asleep first," said Rep. Corey Wilson (R-Augusta), who argued that prohibition had failed and that the state should consider collecting taxes on marijuana to help fight more dangerous drugs.
With Maine activists eyeing the presidential election year of 2016 for a citizens' legalization initiative, the legislature still has a couple of years to act. If it doesn't, Mainers may well make the decision themselves.