Legalization Push Heats Up In Maine


A Maine lawmaker believes that marijuana legalization is inevitable in her state, and she wants the legislature to send a carefully crafted referendum to voters to decide on in 2016.

In an interview with, Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) said, “I believe the question of whether to legalize at this time should be up to the people.”

She’s announced plans to introduce a bill in the 2015 legislative session which, if passed, would let voters decide on a system to regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol and earmark significant tax revenue from legal sales for school construction.

Separately, two activist groups have announced plans to gather signatures to place legalization initiatives on the November 2016 ballot. If both of those initiatives qualify and are approved by voters, the legislature would then have to decipher the will of the voters and craft a regulatory system that best reflects that intent and meets political muster. Russell wants to avoid that possibility by getting the legislature to work out the details of how marijuana would be regulated in advance. If the legislature puts legalization on the ballot, the activist groups may forego their initiative efforts and instead focus on campaigning to pass the referendum.

“This is definitely the last year lawmakers can get ahead of the issue,” she said, referring to the 2015 legislative session. “Are we going to do it responsibly and deliberately or are we going to scramble to sort things out after the fact?”

Regardless of how legalization ends up on the ballot in November 2016, it appears to be in a strong position to pass. A recent poll found that 48 percent of the state’s voters believe marijuana should be legal, with just 39 percent opposed. Fourteen percent were undecided.

Russell thinks her colleagues in the legislature could save a lot of time and spare themselves potential headaches by thinking ahead. “It would be much cleaner for lawmakers to set the policy this year, and then send the question of whether to legalize or not out to the people of Maine to decide,” she says.

In this past November’s election, voters in South Portland approved a local ballot measure aimed at making marijuana legal within city limits. Previously, voters in Portland passed a similar initiative.

Russell has sponsored statewide legalization referendum bills in the past, but they haven’t been enacted. “We were pretty close to passing this in the House last term and we had a lot of co-sponsors to the bill,” she said.

But Russell thinks that the the successful rollout of legalization in Colorado and Washington State, and voters in Alaska and Oregon approving similar initiatives this year, will make Maine’s legislative leaders much more likely to advance the issue in 2015.

“The momentum from states that have legalized it, and now municipalities here in Maine, is definitely changing the conversation,” she said. “This is inevitable, just as repealing Prohibition of alcohol. The question is not whether we’re going to legalize, but when and how.”

Russell also plans to introduce separate legislation that would remove the qualifying conditions list for the state’s medical marijuana law, leaving it completely up to doctors to decide who to recommend the drug to without leaving behind those patients who don’t happen to suffer from one of a predetermined group of serious diseases or disorders.

In the interview with, the lawmaker pointed to the historical role women played in the fight to repeal alcohol Prohibition and the importance of their involvement in today’s efforts to reform marijuana laws.

“A friend in Boston sent me a framed Time Magazine from 1933 when the cover was Pauline Morton Sabin, the woman who led the charge to repeal Prohibition,” she said. “I reframed her into a giant, gorgeous frame and she sits in my dining room right over the bar.

“Sometimes it takes a woman’s touch for society to do the right thing.”

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

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