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

Although voters in Portland, Maine, supposedly

marijuana on Tuesday, that is not really what
happened. As I
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
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
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
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
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

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

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.

from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/11/07/portland-did-not-really-legalize-marijua

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