Maine Legislator Urges Marijuana Legalization


Photo: The Bollard
The extremely cool Rep. Diane Russell of Maine: “We’re dealing with the world as it is”

​Legalizing marijuana would just be recognition of “the world as it is,” according to Rep. Diane Russell, lead sponsor of a bill that would make cannabis legal in Maine.

Rep. Russell (D-Portland) has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana, allow people to grow small amounts for personal use and subject sales to a seven percent sales tax, reports Edward D. Murphy at The Portland Press Herald. The resulting revenue would be directed to law enforcement, agricultural programs, land preservation, weatherization and higher education.
Russell, who has already been anointed Toke of the Town‘s favorite Maine lawmaker, spoke about her plan to legalize pot at Portland City Hall with about a dozen supporters and a lone whack-job protester wearing a sweater with “Jail Diane Russell” emblazoned on its back.

“One by one people say, ‘We should just legalize it. We should just stop wasting all these resources. Let’s collect the tax revenue off of it,’ ” Russell said, reports Susan Sharon at MPBN. “Whether they’re going to tell you that at the public hearing or just on the street or in a coffee shop is the real question as to whether or not the bill moves forward.”

Photo: The Portland Press Herald
Rep. Diane Russell: “Maine people have sent the signal that we’re ready to talk about it”

​It’s time to change failed drug policies, according to Russell.
“Painkillers are the drugs killing Maine people,” she said. “So why are we spending at estimated $26 million per year in Maine to root out, prosecute and jail people for the possession and sale of marijuana? Let’s channel that money toward the real drugs at the core of our addiction issue in Maine.”
“I’m not overly optimistic about the outcome, but I think Maine people have sent the signal that we’re ready to talk about it,” said Russell, an attractive and articulate ice cream shop manager who was reelected to serve a second term in the House last fall.

Photo: The Portland Press Herald
About a dozen supporters and a lone whack-job protester were at Russell’s news conference.

​Backers of the legalization bill call their group “Maine First,” since they want the state to be the first in the United States to legalize, regulate and tax the cannabis industry.
Unfortunately, the bill’s chances aren’t seen as good. The Legislature has already killed two bills this session that would have merely increased the amount of marijuana that people could possess without facing criminal charges, thus strengthening Maine’s decriminalization law.
But Russell does have bipartisan support for the bill, including some from conservative Republicans. She also has the support of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which considers the nation’s incarceration rate for nonviolent drug crimes “one of the great civil rights struggles” of our time.
Possession of small amounts of pot is now a civil, rather than a criminal, violation under Maine laws.
The legalization bill would allow Maine residents to get licenses to grow larger amounts of cannabis. The seven percent sales tax on marijuana would yield around $8.5 million a year, Russell estimates, with the funds going to community policing programs, agriculture programs, higher education, weatherization and land preservation.
Sales, at least to begin with, would be at medical marijuana dispensaries or licensed primary caregivers, who are already allowed to assist patients who have doctor’s authorizations for medical marijuana, according to Russell.
Legalization would save money by allowing police to focus on more serious crimes and reducing prison costs, Russell said.
“We’re dealing with the world as it is,” she said of the drive to legalize.
The bill includes provisions to prohibit people younger than 21 from legally getting marijuana, with penalties for selling pot to anyone under 21, and with no-sale areas around schools.
Russell said marijuana is already relatively easy to get, and that teenagers can often buy it from their friends.
Marijuana isn’t physically addictive, Russell said, and doesn’t necessarily have a “gateway” effect where users move on the more dangerous drugs. But illegal drug dealers push those stronger drugs onto customers who come to them to buy marijuana, she said.
“Marijuana is not the gateway, the drug dealer is,” Russell said.
Marijuana is already Maine’s most valuable cash crop, worth an estimated $122 million a year, according to Jonathan Leavitt, who directs the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative, part of the Maine First organization.
Leavitt said the state’s illegal marijuana crop has surpassed traditional standbys like potatoes and blueberries.
“To see this next step actually come into fruition, and to see an elected official who has enough guts and integrity to stand up and tell you what other elected officials say when they’re off camera, makes us pretty happy,” Leavitt said.
According to Russell, her bill has a handfulh of co-sponsors in the House and has been forwarded to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, but no hearing has been scheduled.