Steven Biel: I have a confession to make, and all my liberal friends will be mad. I voted against the marijuana legalization ballot initiative when it was on the ballot in Portland. Now I’m voting again on the statewide initiative, and I’ve changed my mind. I’m voting yes.
Lance Dutson: This has been a tricky issue for me, too. I’ve generally agreed with the libertarian argument for marijuana legalization, but as a parent I really wasn’t eager to send the message that using drugs was in any way O.K. Now that my kids are grown, I’ve become personally more comfortable with the idea that we should apply some more sound logic to how we handle pot.
Steven: It’s fitting that our views overlap, because this isn’t an issue that breaks down neatly on partisan lines. People tend to think of legalization as a left-wing position, but the drug war has been a bipartisan failure, and the Yes on 1 campaign is being run by Republican David Boyer.
Lance: We live in a nation founded on personal liberty, and we also live in a nation where alcohol consumption is basically a national pastime. When you weigh the incredibly minor health ramifications of marijuana compared to alcohol, it’s very hard to be opposed to legalization.
Steven: I agree there’s not much rational justification for treating alcohol and pot so differently. Still, a lot of Democrats I know are uncomfortable with doing something that, let’s face it, will almost surely increase rates of marijuana use. We’ve pushed hard over the years to lower rates of tobacco use, and a lot of us think about this issue in similar terms.
Lance: So why did you change your mind?
Steven: The biggest factor is the incredible injustice in the way the law is enforced. About 750,000 people a year are arrested for marijuana. Many lose their jobs, housing, financial aid — it’s a stigma that follows you everywhere. And in Maine, black people are more than twice as likely to be arrested as whites, despite similar usage rates. Plus, the additional tax revenue is nice, and it will increase access for people who need it for medical reasons. I still think pot smells bad and stoners are annoying, but that’s not a good enough reason to destroy so many lives.
Lance: Agreed. And I’m also not real fond of potheads either, but I’d rather hang out in a Volkswagen bus full of them than be anywhere near the Old Port when the bars let out on a Saturday night. The big problem with pot right now is that is an entrée to the criminal world. People who smoke weed are more likely to be exposed to the worst elements in society — crime and harder drugs — because they often have to go into the shadows to get it. Legalization ends this dynamic.
Steven: Exactly. Supporters of prohibition have long talked about pot as a “gateway drug,” but it’s actually a gateway to criminal activity because you can’t just drop by your friendly neighborhood agency liquor store. Plus, just think about all the time and money police departments are wasting on this victimless crime.
Lance: There are still unanswered questions about this issue, though. It’s still illegal according to federal law, although the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach in states that have made it legal. But what happens under an iron-fisted Trump administration? Maine could build out a regulatory and business infrastructure around marijuana sales, only to have it collapse based on executive discretion the next year. There are also big questions about handling money, as many banks and insurance companies won’t risk being involved with something that violates federal law.
Steven: When it comes to pot prohibition, we have schizophrenic parties and schizophrenic laws. Your party is divided between right-wing libertarians and bible-thumpers who want to tell people how to live. My party is divided between left-wing civil libertarians and what you would call “nanny-staters.” But you have to start somewhere, and it’s a long road from the reefer madness drug war mentality of Nancy Reagan to something balanced and sensible. As is usually the case, change is coming from the grassroots at the ballot.
Lance: Republicans need to get their heads straight about this whole “liberty” thing, you’re right there. We should be figuring out how to keep people out of jail, not how to put them there.
Steven: And Democrats need to take a hard look at how drug war policies we’ve supported have destroyed the very communities we need to give us 95 percent of their votes to win national elections.