Friday, September 29, 2023
The Long and Winding Road to Legalization

Photography by Matthew Bourgeois

The Long and Winding Road to Legalization

It is generally accepted that cannabis is significantly less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes, leaving many to wonder why cannabis is illegal but alcohol and tobacco are not. The answer has to do more with politics than science. Despite a majority of specialists reporting that cannabis poses no threat to society or individuals and recommending cannabis not be criminalized, political figures insisted children would suffer if cannabis remained accessible to the public. Claims were made that it caused teen girls to date Black men and adolescents in general to lose their ambition and throw away their futures in order to use drugs (cannabis being the proverbial ‘gateway drug’).


The current cannabis prohibition began in 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act. The first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, picked a fight with the plant as a way to stay relevant after alcohol prohibition ended. Despite mounting evidence that cannabis posed no threat to society, and after early statements asserting cannabis was not a threat, Anlinger used fear—specifically fear of the Black and growing Latino communities—to get public support behind its prohibition. Anslinger began calling cannabis ‘marihuana’ to further drive home the plants’ connection to Mexican immigrants, who the working class feared would take their jobs and taint their communities.  


Strong propaganda campaigns began in the 1920s and ‘30s portraying marijuana as a substance that would drive you insane and cause you to commit criminal acts. Multiple articles were published alleging that cannabis use led to insanity and murder. Movies, such as Reefer Madness and Assassin of Youth, were created to scare adolescents away from cannabis use. This propaganda not only vilified the use of cannabis, but also linked it to minority groups and subcultures (perhaps most notably jazz culture and beatniks) and subsequently worked to vilify these groups as well. 


Conservative politicians maintained the trope, causing stigma to grow around cannabis use. Marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and ecstasy, meaning that the federal government doesn’t recognize any legitimate medical uses for cannabis. We all know this is absurd—science (and history) has proven there are multiple medical uses for cannabis. Luckily, the stigma is abating, and politicians are beginning to admit that prohibition was a mistake and are taking steps to correct the damage that has been done. Almost every presidential candidate set forth a plan for marijuana legalization, and most included re-evaluating drug charges for those serving time or having prior cannabis convictions. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders even said they would legalize marijuana by executive order if they were elected! 


The legalization of cannabis is inevitable, and most Americans, regardless of their politics, are okay with that. And those of us who have experienced infinite relief from medical cannabis are thankful that our medicine is becoming more readily available. It’s been more than three years since Maine (barely) legalized recreational cannabis use by a ballot initiative. While it’s been legal to grow, possess, use, and give or receive cannabis, it was not until this last month that any legal retailers began conducting sales. 


Why? Because the state legalized recreational use before putting sales regulations in place. What?! They said you can have it, and you can use it, but they didn’t say where you could get it, how much you could get, what sort of tests distributors needed to put the products through, or what information distributors had to put on their packaging—not to mention what the tax rate would be and how state officers would account for overall production.


In such a charged climate, any slight misstep can close the door to any future recreational retail opportunities. Many found that the best path to adult-use stores was to get a foot in the door by becoming a medical distributor while preparing to meet all of the strict requirements for non-medical distribution, and by paying particularly close attention to seed-to-sale demands and local zoning. 


There are a lot of moving parts—for instance, after months of preparing to use BioTrackTHC seed-to-sale software, the state decided to pull out of their agreement just after Christmas, setting back the recreational program so the state could find a new monitoring system. That also meant that producers who had already invested time and resources into figuring out the BioTrack system before the switch had to go through the process all over again with METRC, the new software company Maine signed a contract with.


There is no denying that legal sales of recreational cannabis will be a great boon to the state’s economy—Illinois legalized cannabis at the start of this year and did $10.8 million in sales in the first five days! And since prohibition began, cannabis use has been considered a victimless crime by the majority of citizens, among both experts and laypeople alike. Progress has been slow, but the goal is almost realized.


After waiting for four long years, Maine residents and tourists traveling through are finally able to legally purchase adult-use recreational cannabis. You may be saying to yourself right now, “but I thought recreational cannabis has been legal in Maine?” Yes. Recreational cannabis has been legal in Maine for a while now, but just possession and use. (And gifting, creating all kinds of creative loopholes). The main issue has been figuring out how to regulate it. And, over the last several years, Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy (OMP) has been working to hammer out the details of regulating cannabis sales.


Since being voted into law back in November 2016, recreational sales have faced hurdle after hurdle, starting with a gubernatorial veto, and then OMP’s last-minute decision to switch the seed-to-sale tracking software from BioTrack to Metrc at the end of last year, and then, of course, the pandemic. OMP issued the first round of conditional licenses to almost 80 businesses—including retail, production, and testing facilities—at the beginning of this year. After getting conditional licenses issued from OMP, businesses then had to go to their municipalities for permission to operate. Once businesses received their town’s blessing, they could apply for active licenses.


Business owners were hopeful that sales would start in spring 2020. As a natural skeptic, I was not in the least surprised when sales were delayed yet again. (Though this time, it was due to COVID, which is admittedly very different from earlier legislative hiccups). It’s been a long road to full legalization, but for Mainers that day has finally come. And when the federal government finally joins in, we will all be able to take a deep, THC-filled, breath of relief!