Proponents of marijuana legalization say they have "traction" in Maine, as a Portland legislator's bill to allow recreational use of marijuana awaits a hearing in committee. Pressure is coming to bear, although not everyone favors the state legislation. "Portland's efforts are going to push it to the state level," said Charles Wynott, a marijuana-legalization advocate, referring to a Portland Green Party initiative to legalize marijuana in the city. Wynott, the founder and executive director for one of Maine's oldest AIDS service organizations, the nonprofit Piefer Patients Alliance, said it's only a matter of time. "We're in a good predicament right now, we're in a good space," he said. "If it doesn't pass this year, we've done one more step toward it. Every year we move one step closer." Thirty-five state lawmakers are listed as co-sponsors of LD 1229, an"Act to Tax and Regulate Marijuana," sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. The final co-sponsor list includes Democrats, Republicans, an independent and the state representatives of the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseets, Russell announced in a press release. The bill was referred Tuesday to the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. The bill would decriminalize the possession and use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, according to the bill summary, and limit personal use to 2.5 ounces and six plants. The proposed law would still prohibit smoking marijuana in public places. Maine residents will still have the final say on whether to allow the decriminalization of marijuana through a citizen referendum. If state lawmakers approve the bill this session, it will be referred to voters in November, Russell noted. "We all recognize this issue is coming to Maine," said Russell in a press release. "It is clear from the strong number of co-sponsors that the Legislature is ready to take this issue seriously and to set up a robust infrastructure to properly regulate and tax marijuana — before the genie gets out of the bottle. The people of Maine would then be able to decide for themselves at the ballot box whether they want to legalize marijuana." In 2009, only 39 members of the Maine House voted in support for similar legislation, and the Senate did not vote, Russell noted. At 1 p.m. on Thursday, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will hear LD 525, "An Act to Promote Industrial Hemp," sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, and co-sponsored by Russell and several other legislators. Harvell said his bill does not touch on marijuana legalization, but he acknowledged a new crop of legislators, many of whom with a libertarian bent, seem more amenable to legalization. "My bill is just dealing with industrial hemp," Harvell said. "My opinion on marijuana as well is I tend to favor legalization, when it comes to marijuana there's no way you can win the war (on drugs) the way we're fighting it." Pointing to "more libertarian thinking in Augusta," Harvell said marijuana legalization is attractive to more people "who are beginning to have real concerns about how this is going. ... With me, it's a libertarian pragmatism." As for promotion of industrial hemp, Harvell said he was approached to sponsor the legislation, which seeks to offer hemp as an alternative fiber source. The legislative summary states: "This bill removes the requirements that an applicant for an initial license to grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes must submit a set of the applicant's fingerprints and file with the Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry documentation indicating that the seeds planted were a type and variety of hemp approved by the commissioner and also repeals the provision that licensure is contingent upon action by the Federal Government." Harvell said, "I think with industrial hemp, you're seeing some movement here and across the country." As a fiber source, Harvell said hemp has been unfairly stigmatized. "Its usages are actually quite large," he said. "It got caught up, it's a cousin crop to marijuana, so when we went to war with one we went to war with the other." U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is among those promoting hemp. He released a statement Wednesday applauding passage of a Kentucky bill that regulates industrial hemp, and promised to continue to push for a federal waiver from laws restricting its use. "Kentucky was one of the largest exporters of industrial hemp prior to WW2. It can be a great cash crop once again," he said. Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, has joined the effort to end marijuana prohibition and start regulating marijuana like alcohol at the federal level, signing on to co-sponsor H.R. 499, the "Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013." David Boyer, political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said all of these developments point to momentum on the side of legalization proponents, but also cautioned that Russell's bill isn't a sure thing. "It could go either way," he acknowledged. Chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is a co-sponsor, which may help the bill's chances, he said. "At all levels, we have traction," Boyer said. Wynott, however, acknowledged dissent among some in the medical marijuana field. One of those critics is Paul McCarrier, legislative liaison for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, the state's trade association representing caregivers and patients. He said Russell's bill would hurt Mainers.
"We're concerned because this bill does not protect the individual to be able to cultivate on their own and so it will force them to buy their plants and seeds from out-of-state corporate interests. This bill is so skewed toward the out-of-state dispensary model," he said. "What we need is a bill by Mainers for Mainers, and this is not it," McCarrier said. In the next two weeks, McCarrier said he expects a legislative hearing on Russell's bill, While focused on the medical marijuana model, McCarrier said he will stay busy informing legislators on the "deathly flaws in this bill." Wynott said it's unclear how Russell's bill will fare, but said, "We're going to push hard on it." Successful legalization votes in the West prove marijuana legalization is growing more mainstream, he said. "Since Washington and Oregon started their campaigns, now that they passed it, the world isn't coming to an end," Wynott said. "Once Portland does it, being the largest city in the state, the state will have to look at it," he said. "I think every year we need to present it just to see how it goes. One year it's going to happen," Wynott said.