AUGUSTA — Four county sheriffs teamed up with representatives of community health care providers Tuesday to warn of the danger to society in general, and youth in particular, of legalizing marijuana.

Their news conference at the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office in Augusta took place just blocks from the State House, where the proposal to legalize marijuana will be the subject of a 10 a.m. Friday public hearing before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in Room 436.

“The Maine Sheriffs Association, the Maine Network of Health Communities and the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse stand together unified in the message that the use of marijuana is damaging to our youth, our communities, and to the state of Maine,” said Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, who is also president of the Maine Sheriffs Association.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry urged everyone “to do their homework and understand the science” of the effects of marijuana on a developing brain. “Make a decision to keep the community strong.”

Merry, a vice president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, was joined by other executive board members, Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant and Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett, at the news conference.

The sheriffs said marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to abusing other substances, something borne out by inmates in substance abuse rehabilitation programs in county jails.

“We learn marijuana is how they started,” Liberty said.

Bruce Campbell, program director at Wellspring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services in Bangor, said surveys among some Maine youth show more high school students smoke pot than tobacco.

“The average level of THC (the primary active ingredient) in the pot of today is five times more powerful than the pot of the ’60s,” he said. “We know all too well the myth of ‘It’s only pot.’ Getting high is getting high, and getting high always brings with it a significant price to pay.”

Campbell said the societal cost to Maine of marijuana use and substance abuse is almost $1.27 billion annually for heath care, social services, criminal justice and loss of work productivity.

Jamie Comstock, health promotion manager for Bangor’s Department of Health and Community Services, offered national numbers: “We know that the societal costs of already  legalized substances of tobacco and alcohol cost our country $428 billion annually — this according to the White House Office of National Drug Control and Policy — and we know that only a fraction of this cost is recouped in federal and state taxes — this from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.”

Scott Gagnon, substance abuse prevention manager at Healthy Androscoggin, said he had some good news to offer:  “Four out of five high school youth are not currently engaged in marijuana use.”

However, he said the “fragile success of the numbers going down” is now threatened by a mistaken belief that there is no risk from regular marijuana use.

“Expanding access to drugs and alcohol is not good for Maine’s communities or Maine’s future,” Gagnon said.

The bill to legalize and tax marijuana in Maine, L.D. 1229,  was presented by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, and has dozens of cosponsors.

According to the bill summary, the proposal imposes an excise tax on marijuana and permits personal use and cultivation by those over age 21, among numerous other provisions.

It also would have to go to statewide referendum to be enacted.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com