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Marijuana access expanded in Maine

AUGUSTA, Maine (BP)–Voters in Maine overwhelmingly approved a measure to allow nonprofit organizations to provide medical marijuana to patients Nov. 3, making Maine the third state to establish dispensaries and the first to do so by a vote of the people.

By roughly a 60-40 percent vote, Mainers approved Question 5, which expands the list of medical conditions that qualify for treatment with marijuana, creates a state-regulated registry of qualified users and allows for a statewide system of storefront distribution centers.

Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed disappointment in the outcome “because the use of marijuana as medicine is just plain bad policy.”

“Marijuana is a poor pain reliever,” Duke told Baptist Press. “Furthermore, it creates additional complications for its user, including respiratory problems, heightened risk for cancer, exposure to dozens of other little-understood chemicals, and all the dangers associated with drug abuse.

“Maine’s decision to expand the legal uses of the drug puts more people at risk of these problems, which likely will far outweigh any benefits,” Duke said.

The referendum was a follow-up to Maine’s passage in 1999 of a law allowing individuals suffering from one of four specific medical conditions to grow, possess and use small amounts of marijuana if recommended by a physician.

While 13 states have approved the use of the drug for medical purposes, only Rhode Island and New Mexico preceded Maine in establishing a distribution system, and in those states the law was passed by the legislatures.

“This is a dramatic step forward, the first time that any state’s voters have authorized the state government to license medical marijuana dispensaries,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “Coming a decade after passage of Maine’s original marijuana law, this is a huge sign that voters are comfortable with these laws, and also a sign that the recent change of policy from the Obama administration is having a major impact.”

The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project drafted the initiative in Maine and provided start-up funding for the campaign.

Question 5 was opposed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Maine Prosecutors Association.

Evert Fowle, president of the Maine Prosecutors Association, told the Bangor Daily News the new law would be difficult to enforce because of its complexity and breadth.

“It’s a very poor law,” said Fowle, who also is a district attorney in Kennebec County. “This was written by self-proclaimed marijuana activists. … The ultimate goal of the people behind this law is to legalize marijuana.”

Also on Election Day, residents of the Colorado ski town of Breckenridge voted overwhelmingly to decriminalize possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana for people over age 21. The Associated Press called the measure largely symbolic because marijuana possession aside from medical purposes remains illegal under state law.

The 13 states that have legalized medical marijuana since 1996 — nine by ballot measure and four by legislature — in order of passage are California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Montana, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Michigan.

The vote in Maine comes on the heels of a failed movement to legalize medical marijuana in New Hampshire, where the Senate fell two votes short of the two-thirds needed to override Gov. John Lynch’s veto.

New Hampshire’s House of Representatives voted 240-115 Oct. 28 to pass a bill that would have established three nonprofit “compassion centers” to dispense 2 ounces of marijuana every 10 days to severely ill patients with doctors’ approval, AP said.

The state Senate voted 14-10 the same day, dooming the bill for this legislative session. The bill’s sponsor said she will file the legislation again in 2011 after next year’s election when the makeup of both chambers could change.

Lynch, a Democrat, expressed concern that the bill did not clearly restrict marijuana use to people with severe pain, seizures or nausea and could lead to abuse of the drug, AP said.

In California, the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, proponents of the drug are seeking another precedent. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana — the first such law in the nation.

The idea is taking hold, The New York Times said, in part because of the Obama administration’s relaxed approach toward medical marijuana and because of the fledgling budget in California. Officials estimate legalized marijuana could bring in about $1.4 billion per year in tax revenue, The Times said, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he is open to a “robust debate” on the issue.

Three separate marijuana initiatives are being circulated in California for signatures to appear on the ballot next year, and all three would allow adults to possess marijuana for personal use and allow local governments to tax it, The Times reported. Observers say it’s likely the issue will appear on next year’s ballot.

USA Today, in a report about “booming medical pot sales” in September, said storefront vendors of marijuana are nearly as easy to find in California as a taco stand. Police and prosecutors have said the current law’s vagueness on who can sell marijuana has created a safe haven for drug dealers who are operating illegally.

Abuse concerns aren’t unique to California, USA Today said, providing examples of implementation problems in Rhode Island, Colorado and New Mexico.

In October, the Obama administration formalized a policy barring the prosecution of medical marijuana patients and their suppliers if they are in violation only of federal law and not of state law. Federal law prohibits the sale of marijuana for therapeutic purposes.

Earlier this year, researchers in New Zealand announced that smoking marijuana may have a greater potential than tobacco smoking to cause lung cancer, and smoking just one marijuana joint is as harmful to the body as smoking 20 cigarettes.

Another report, released in May, said marijuana continues to become more potent and to cause mental impairment and traffic fatalities. The levels of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana have reached the highest-ever levels since scientific analysis of the drug began in the late 1970s, the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy said.

Two federal studies released in June analyzed the social cost of drug use, finding that half of the men arrested in 10 major U.S. cities tested positive for at least one illegal drug, with the most common being marijuana.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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