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Legalization of marijuana will make Maine less safe

Op-Ed by John E. Morris, Commissioner of Public Safety

I’ve spent my entire 50-year career in public safety and the military trying to protect and keep people safe. Some of the most challenging things I have dealt with were not actions of individuals, but the consequences of political decisions.

With Question 1, the ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, you get to be the decision maker—you get to decide whether this law goes into effect. If it does, I can assure you the unintended consequences will be many. Please read the 30-plus pages of Question 1; you will quickly see what I’m talking about.

As a naval officer during the Vietnam War, I saw young men devolve into addiction—first with marijuana and then with harder drugs like heroin. As Waterville police chief, I saw parents neglect their children and watched as young people let their ambitions wallow in a haze of marijuana smoke. As Commissioner of Public Safety, which includes Maine State Police, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and Maine Fire Marshal, I read reports almost daily about marijuana-related incidents, crashes and crimes.
Among all the false claims being made by the pro-legalization campaign, one stands out as demanding correction from a law enforcement perspective. Legalization advocates have said police officers need to spend less time going after marijuana users and more time arresting serious criminals. Let’s be clear: marijuana is already decriminalized in Maine. Offenders receive a citation; they are not arrested for simple possession, and marijuana possession is very low on police officers’ priorities.

I can assure you, the Maine State Police and local law enforcement agencies are already focused on the bigger fish—heroin, cocaine and crack dealers, violent criminals and violent crime. Any assertion that officers are spending inordinate time going after marijuana possessors is an attempt to mislead the public. It just doesn’t happen.

I recently met with law enforcement and community leaders from three states that have legalized marijuana. What we’re seeing in states like Colorado that have legalized marijuana for recreational use and retail sale does not bode well for Maine’s prospects should Question 1 pass.

From 2014 to 2015, as legalized marijuana took effect, Colorado saw a 6.2 percent increase in property crime and a 6.7 percent increase in violent crime. Since 2013, the state saw a 62 percent increase in the number of marijuana-related traffic deaths and similar increases in the number of drivers testing positive for marijuana use.

Law enforcement in Maine is not prepared for this influx of marijuana-related traffic crashes. While Maine law enforcement officers receive extensive training on alcohol impaired driving, less than 10 percent have been trained to detect marijuana-impaired drivers.

Supporters tout the supposed economic benefits, but 68 percent of Colorado municipalities have passed ordinances banning marijuana businesses from their jurisdictions. Local communities have overwhelmingly decided that the societal downsides far outweigh any economic benefits.

Legalized marijuana attracts the wrong elements, too. Public consumption of drugs complaints have increased by 79 percent statewide. This tells us people are already fed up with public displays of drug use.  Maine needs to attract young families; this is not the kind of environment those families want to provide for their children.

Additionally, marijuana legalization hits kids especially hard. Accidental marijuana ingestion by Colorado children under age 12 has increased by 50 percent. Colorado saw a 32 percent increase in drug-related school suspensions and expulsions, and 89 percent of school resource officers have experienced an increase in student marijuana-related incidents.

Colorado now ranks third in the nation for marijuana use among 12- to 17-year-olds—56 percent higher than the national average. To make matters worse, the proposed Question 1 repeals the law prohibiting minor possession of marijuana by anyone in the state, including teenagers and younger, and does not require the vendor training that’s already required for the sale of alcohol and tobacco in Maine, but not marijuana.

Colorado’s emergency health care resources have also been stretched. Consumption by children or inexperienced users, especially when accidental or by highly concentrated edible products, has driven a 57 percent increase in emergency room visits, an 82 percent increase in hospitalization, and a 70 percent increase in calls to poison control hotlines.

My role is not to tell Mainers how to vote. But it is important that those with experience in public safety educate the public about what the aftermath of marijuana legalization would look like. Beware of one-sided portrayals of tax revenue, “marijuana tourism” and fewer burdens on law enforcement. If pot is legalized, Mainers will see more crime, more crashes, more hospital visits, more traffic deaths, more experimentation by children and even more heavily burdened health care and law enforcement systems.

John E. Morris is the Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Public Safety.

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