Marijuana legalization opponents at a public forum Tuesday repeatedly emphasized an issue raised last week by Attorney General Janet Mills – that approval of Question 1 could result in the unintended consequence of making pot possession legal for children.

The noon forum at the Portland Public Library, attended by about 100 people, demonstrated that Mills’ assertion may become a key point as voters consider the legalization measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The attorney general has said the proposal, if approved, would repeal existing laws prohibiting marijuana use by juveniles, but proponents of Question 1 have disputed Mills’ legal interpretation.

Jennifer Ackerman, a deputy district attorney for Cumberland County, said on several occasions at Tuesday’s forum that Question 1 would make it legal for children to have pot, touting it as a major reason to vote “no.”

“It will be lawful for children to possess marijuana if you vote ‘yes,’ ” Ackerman said.

But David Boyer, director of the “Yes on 1” campaign, called the late-in-the-election revelation a political move that resembled “reefer madness propaganda.”

“It’s clear this was intended for adults,” said Boyer, who pointed out that in the 30-page bill it’s mentioned 25 times that marijuana would only be legal for adults 21 and older. The attorney for the Yes on 1 campaign – Scott Anderson – said last week that if the referendum is approved, marijuana would remain illegal for minors.

“If it’s an issue we can fix it,” said Boyer, explaining that the Legislature meets in January and could quickly approve a bill so that there’s no question that marijuana would be illegal for anyone under age 21.

LEGAL ANALYSIS DONE LATE IN THE GAME

In addition to Boyer and Ackerman, the forum’s panel included Rick Steves of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Scott Gagnon of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, a legalization opponent. The forum – part of the library’s Choose Civility Election Series – was moderated by Portland Press Herald reporter Gillian Graham.

E. James Burke, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, told the Press Herald on Tuesday that while he hasn’t examined the proposal in depth, the intent of the referendum is clear that it would legalize marijuana only for adults.

After the vote, making a change “is called a technical revision of the law,” Burke said. “The Legislature does this all the time to fix technical errors.”

Ackerman, the deputy district attorney and legalization opponent, said to have marijuana be legal for children, even for a few weeks or months until the Legislature acts, is enough reason to vote “no.”

“Come back with a better product,” Ackerman said, noting there’s no guarantee that the Legislature will make the revisions. “The idea that we’re going to fix it later is not good enough,”

Mills said Tuesday in an email response to questions from the Press Herald that she started looking at the bill in detail in September.

“The marijuana initiative is the longest and most complicated of the five referenda on the ballot. I began looking at it in early September and asked others in my office to take a look at it, because I wanted to be clear about what it actually did as a matter of law and to determine its effect on other laws. No one asked me to review the bill for them,” Mills wrote.

Asked why the problem was not identified earlier, Mills said her office does not approve the language of a ballot initiative. Similarly, a voting guide published by the Secretary of State’s Office that includes an “Intent and Content” statement by the attorney general is “not designed to provide a detailed legal analysis of an initiated bill,” Mills wrote. “It is just a summary of what the bill purports to say and do, not of its actual legal effect when analyzed in conjunction with all the other relevant laws on the books.”

The forum panelists had a long debate over the effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, the first two states that approved it in 2012. Subsequently, voters in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia approved legalization.

Maine, which currently allows medical uses of marijuana, is one of five states that will vote on legalization initiatives Nov. 8. In Maine, adults would be allowed to possess up to 2½ ounces, grow their own plants and buy marijuana from licensed retail stores.

Steves, who hosts the public television program “Rick Steves’ Europe,” said he lives in Washington state, and that legalization has generated millions in tax revenues and shifted jobs from street dealers to legitimate businesses.

“The most dangerous part of marijuana is that it’s illegal,” Steves said. “When it’s illegal, it’s sold by criminals who have a vested interest in getting their customers addicted to more powerful and addictive drugs.”

POT AND SOBRIETY TESTS FOR DRIVERS

Ackerman said that unlike alcohol, there’s no reliable test that determines whether someone who consumed marijuana is capable of driving, which she contends would have the practical effect of making it legal to drive while smoking marijuana.

“In Maine, you can’t drink and drive, but you could smoke a marijuana joint while driving or eat a pot-laced Gummy Bear and drive,” Ackerman said.

Boyer said drivers who fail a field sobriety test could still be prosecuted for driving under the influence. However, Ackerman said prosecutors typically need more evidence than field sobriety tests to convict someone of DUI.

Louise Davis, 75, of Portland, who attended Tuesday’s forum, said she uses marijuana to relieve her arthritis and other medical conditions. She said she supports Question 1 and believes legalization could result in more money being devoted to drug education and treatment programs to help addicts quit more powerful drugs, like heroin.

 


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