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Originally published Friday, May 3, 2013 at 11:50 AM

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Maine panel hears case for marijuana legalization

With other states already starting to allow the legal use of marijuana, Maine needs to get ahead of the issue and legalize, regulate and tax the sale of the drug, lawmakers were told Friday.

Associated Press

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AUGUSTA, Maine —

With other states already starting to allow the legal use of marijuana, Maine needs to get ahead of the issue and legalize, regulate and tax the sale of the drug, lawmakers were told Friday.

"This issue is coming to our state," Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee as it took up the bill she sponsored. It has 35 co-sponsors in the 186-member Legislature.

Russell and others pointed to two other states, Colorado and Washington, where residents voted to allow pot for recreational use by adults over 21, as evidence that the issue will come to Maine. Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont are among the states where bills to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol were to be debated this year, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Supporters of Russell's bill urged lawmakers to step forward and design a regulatory framework for legalization for a drug that's already widely used.

The bill would legalize, tax and regulate the sale of marijuana for personal consumption for people over 21 years old. Adults could possess up to 2 1/2 ounces legally, also grow up to six plants for personal consumption. The bill establishes a tax rate of $50 per ounce for marijuana sold by licensed marijuana cultivation facilities, which would generate $13 million in revenue for the state, according to supporters. Russell said her bill calls for a referendum if it's approved by the Legislature.

The current law, seen as a form of prohibition by supporters, represents "a golden opportunity" for Maine to take a lead on marijuana policy reform, David Boyer of the Maine Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbied for medical marijuana and legalization efforts. The current law making the drug illegal fosters an underground market that is open to minors, who should be restricted from the drug, he told the committee.

Joining the supporters was Jack Cole, a former New Jersey state police undercover narcotics officer, who said the war on drugs has failed.

"For 42 years the United States has fought the war on drugs with ever-harsher policies, and to do so it has spent $1.5 trillion of our tax dollars," said Cole, co-founder and board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said in testimony prepared for the hearing. "During that time, more than 46 million arrests on nonviolent drug law violators were made in the United States. Nearly half of those were for marijuana offenses." The arrests needlessly disrupt people's lives, he said.

While LEAP does not condone drug use other than for medicinal purposes, it acknowledges a small percentage of society uses illegal drugs, and the laws should recognize it, said Cole, adding, "We cannot arrest our way out of these problems."

Opponents included substance abuse counselors, who say much is not known about the effects of marijuana use and expressed skepticism that legalization would eliminate the black market for the drug.

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association opposed the bill, which it views as a threat to highway safety as drivers under the influence of marijuana get behind the wheel. The chiefs also fear passage would turn Maine into a "launching pad" for drug sales for dealers in regional states, who would purchase marijuana in Maine as prices fall, said Robert Schwartz of the chiefs' group.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has taken no position on the bill because it's too early in the process to do so, spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and federal drug officials have warned that if the government doesn't sue states that have legalized the drug it will trigger a domino effect of states passing legalization bills.

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