Portland Did Not Really Legalize Marijuana, but the Success of Question 1 Is Still Good News


Marijuana Policy Project

Although voters in Portland, Maine, supposedly legalized marijuana on Tuesday, that is not really what happened. As I noted last month, Question 1, which received support from more than two-thirds of voters, merely eliminated local penalties for possession of up to two and and half ounces. Under state law, possessing pot in amounts below that cutoff remains a civil violation punishable by fines ranging from $350 to $1,000. Hence it is not surprising that Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck says the initiative won't stop his officers from citing people for marijuana possession when they think it's appropriate. But he also says that won't be very often. "This doesn't change anything for us in terms of enforcement," Sauschuck told the Bangor Daily News. "But the actual statistics show this is a low priority for us."

Between June 2011 and June 2012, Sauschuck says, the Portland Police Department issued just 68 marijuana summonses in a city of 66,000. By comparison, the New York Police Department in 2011 made more than 50,000 arrests and issued more than 8,000 summonses for marijuana possession in a city of 8.2 million. New York City has a population that's 124 times as big, but it nabbed 868 times as many pot smokers. By that measure, New York is seven times as intolerant of marijuana as Portland.

The Portland Police Department's attitude toward marijuana consumers seems similar to the Seattle Police Department's. Asked if he plans to cite people who publicly celebrated the passage of Question 1 by lighting up a joint and memorialized the moment in photographs, Sauschuck replied, "Let's think about resource allocation. We're not going to go after these guys for smoking a joint."

So if Question 1 (which officially takes effect in a month) won't have much of a practical effect, what was the point? As I suggested last month, the Question 1 campaign was a dry run for statewide legalization efforts in Maine and elsewhere. Its messaging focused on the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol, with ads featuring respectable-looking pot smokers asking, "Why should I be punished for making the safer choice?" Judging from the large majority the initiative attracted, that message, which also was prominent in Colorado's successful legalization campaign, resonates with voters.

Another plus: The marijuana-is-safer message really upsets pot prohibitionists, who hate it so much that they tried to censor it. "Maine is on the brink of creating a massive marijuana industry that will inevitably target teens and other vulnerable populations," warns former congressman Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the anti-pot group Project SAM, which has created a Maine chapter to fight legalization there. "Misconceptions about marijuana are becoming more and more prevalent. It's time to clear the smoke and get the facts out about this drug."

Guess who else is upset. "We're not against legalization of marijuana," an unnamed alcohol industry lobbyist tells National Journal. "We just don't want to be vilified in the process. We don't want alcohol to be thrown under the bus, and we're going to fight to defend our industry when we are demonized." That's fair enough. I myself sometimes worry that marijuana activists may alienate potential allies if they seem to be condemning alcohol or bashing drinkers. But it is perfectly legitimate to point out that the legal distinction between alcohol and marijuana makes no sense from a scientific or medical standpoint, and some potential benefits from legalization (such as fewer traffic fatalities) hinge on alcohol's greater hazards.

As a malt beverage enthusiast, I sympathize with the concern that beer may be unfairly tarnished by the message that pot is a safer choice. But if brewers want to defend their products, they will have to do better than this:

"We believe it's misleading to compare marijuana to beer," said Chris Thorne of the Beer Institute. "Beer is distinctly different both as a product and an industry."

Thorne notes that the alcohol industry is regulated, studied extensively, and perhaps more importantly already an accepted part of the culture.

"Factually speaking beer has been a welcome part of American life for a long time," he said. "The vast majority drink responsibly, so having caricatures won't really influence people."

Don't compare beer and pot, Thorne says, because they're different! Well, they're different in some ways and similar in others, which is what makes the comparison instructive. Thorne adds that marijuana should not be tolerated because it is not accepted, which seems pretty circular to me. He also says the responsible majority of drinkers should not be caricatured, and I agree, but the responsible majority of marijuana consumers surely have more to complain about on that score.

NEXT: Bill Banning Job Discrimination Against Gays Passes Senate

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  1. Doesn’t Maine have more pressing matters to deal with? Like that pervasive mist full of otherworldly monsters?

    1. And those ridiculous accents?

        1. Pepperidge FAHM Remembahs!

    2. Yeah, they also have some clown running around in the sewers, a creepy Indian burial ground that needs cleaning up, a presidential candidate who is going to start World War III, a town that’s been contaminated by some gas coming off an ancient crashed alien starship, plus vampires, rabid dogs, little girls with telekinetic powers, possessed cars, and much more.

      They should really get their act together before worrying about stuff like this.

  2. Is it really a good idea to emphasize that booze is the Real Health Problem? Especially since the drug legalizers like to bring up Prohibition and there is a movement to ban tobacco and fatty foods at the same time pot is being legalized?

    1. The idea is that everyone knows Prohibition was a failure for alcohol, and drawing that logical connection to cannabis policy seems to be a winner.

      1. logical connection

        Seems the logical connection is that Pot shouldn’t be banned as isn’t bad for you while tobacco and fatty foods are in fact bad for you.

        It is especially annoying since Sullum is one of those guys who says that everything that someone wants to ban is never bad for you in any way at all.

        1. The obvious retort is that the lesson is that banning things in high demand is a fruitless endeavor–whether or not those things are bad for you. The negatives caused by the illegality of the popular commodity outweigh anything gained by having more limited access to it.

          People see this truth in alcohol Prohibition, the key ids helping them see it with drugs, and it starts with marijuana.

  3. I’m not really seeing the adversity between marijuana and alcohol.

    Honestly it’s just a different experience and they compliment each other more than they compete.

    Yes, alcohol is more lethal but comparing it as a justification for marijuana legalization doesn’t mean people are out to destroy the liquor industry. We tried that and after that failure I hope we wouldn’t try it again.

    1. This is a continued irk of my own. In this extremely ban-happy environment, wanting one thing legalized while vilifying another thing which absolutely shouldn’t be made illegal (tried to disasterous results as you pointed out) is, in my opinion, a bad strategy.

      I’ve heard pro-mj legalization advocates bitch loudly about the dangers of alcohol. It’s just sort of one of those things where you want to take them aside and say, “Shut the fuck up, Donny, you’re way in over your head here…”

      1. They are out of their element.

      2. It’s also laughable at this point that “safety” is really the issue. It’s inertia and reefer madness hysteria and entrenched interests like the court and prison system, drug rehab centers, and so on. So the tack they’re taking isn’t just stupid because we live in banhappy times, but it’s also stupid because they’re missing the real reasons.

  4. Fuck off, alcohol-ban-boner slavers. Fuck. Off. Enough of this shit from a supposed libertarian magazine.

  5. IF I were a prohibitionist (in the broad sense of the term) I would try to spread the meme that marijuana enthusiasts are effectively trying to raise alcohol taxes to fund their dirty hippy habit.

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