In the face of a continued push to legalize marijuana in Maine, a full day, statewide summit on marijuana, “Marijuana in the New Millenium”, was held Wednesday. This event was planned and coordinated through a collaboration between Bangor Public Health, Healthy Acadia, and their respective community-based substance abuse prevention task forces. Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Maine was also invited to provide some technical assistance in the planning of this event. The day event saw community members and substance abuse prevention professionals from all 16 counties come together to learn from two national presenters; President Dr. Stu Gitlow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and Thomas Gorman, Director for Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Mr. Gorman was also the featured speaker for the evening event at the Gracie Theater at Husson University. His presentation provided an overview of how drug policy works in the United States and how it has succeeded in keeping the rate of illicit drug use low. One key data point that emphasizes this is the fact that 9% of Americans use illicit drugs, or to put it another way 91% of Americans are not using illicit drugs of any kind. The central part of Mr. Gorman’s presentation was sharing the latest data from Colorado, which his organization has been collecting and collating into its reports, The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact. His presentation went through the data from the latest report released earlier this month, which I summarized in my previous blog article.
Following the keynote presentation was a panel of local and state experts who have been dealing with the marijuana issues in Maine first hand. Panelists included Patricia Hamilton, director of Bangor Public Health; Barbara Royal, executive director of Open Door Recovery Services in Ellsworth; and Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton. I was honored to also serve as a panelist representing Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Maine.
Each panelist was asked a series of questions which were submitted ahead of time through the Bangor Daily News website. For the purposes of this article, I wanted to share my responses to the two questions that were asked of me, which I think covered ground central to what Tom Gorman presented at the beginning of the event.
The first question I was asked was essentially to advise on what a practical national marijuana legalization policy should look like. I refer back to an important piece of the keynote presentation where Mr. Gorman laid out the four key factors that influence the drug use rate in the United States: pricing, availability of drugs, perception of harm, and community or national attitudes. The question then becomes, how are you measuring the practicality of such a policy? If your sole measure is tax revenues, then I suppose what’s going on in Colorado is somewhat practical, although when compared to the overall state budget, the revenues from pot taxes makes up the tiniest sliver and doesn’t even constitute a drop in the bucket.
However, if we are going to measure practicality by the impact on public health, public safety, communities, and youth, then the answer is there can be no such model in the United States. Why? Because of the culture of commercialism in the United States. Do we think Big Marijuana would willingly go along with policies that set pricing to keep consumption down? Would the marijuana industry accept policies that limit availability and limit its ability to grow its customer base? Would the industry willingly accept advertising and marketing bans to limit the appeal of their products to youth, thereby increasing perception of harm? Would the industry accept policies that would result in Americans having negative perceptions and attitudes towards marijuana? The answer to all of those questions, of course, is no. And you need only look to the lessons of Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol. So by this measure of practicality, which is the correct one if we care about the health of our communities, there simply is no practical model that could be created in the U.S.
The second question for me, was given all of the negative public health, public safety, and youth health outcomes described by Mr. Gorman, why would Maine want to follow their path and legalize marijuana? The simple answer, of course, is that Maine absolutely does not want to go down that path. Again, if the only benchmark we want to use is the profits and bank accounts of the marijuana industry, then sure, let’s legalize. If, however, we are going to consider the other side of the ledger, if we are going to take into account increased ER visits, hospitalizations, increased youth use, increased risks on our roadways, increased ingestions by 0 to 5 year olds and pets, then we absolutely want to reject the legalization and commercialization of marijuana in Maine.
In the end, that is truly one of the biggest dangers of marijuana. The drug itself is harmful which has been well described by countless scientists and national health organizations. However, when you add an industry into the mix, the harms become amplified many times. This is the experience with tobacco and alcohol. The biggest harms come from the industry through its marketing, pricing, and advertising strategies. These strategies are all to one end, to expand the customer base and increase profits. That is precisely what the marijuana industry wants, and their money demographic is young adults. Which is precisely why right now the industry has a mascot touring college campuses in Ohio, to hook them into buying into their “movement”.
Yesterday’s summit was an important opportunity to provide Mainers with the other side of the ledger, the full story of what marijuana legalization looks like in Colorado. This is important information that all Mainers need to have so they can make a fully informed decision in the likely scenario we have dueling legalization initiatives in 2016. Citing paltry tax revenues is only giving you one chapter of a 20 chapter novel. When you read this story cover to cover, it is abundantly clear that the Coloradization of Maine should be the last thing we want for our state.