There's definitely a lingering stigma around marijuana, but it's dissipating gradually, especially as the movement makes an effort to buck preconceived notions and clean itself up.
Consider the Wellness Connection of Maine, the medical marijuana dispensary that opened earlier this year on Congress Street behind Local 188. One of four dispensaries in a connected network (the others are in Brewer, Hallowell, and Thomaston), the Wellness Connection is bright, airy, and open. Patient-produced art decorates the walls and recipes for swapping are tacked to a bulletin board. Several strains of medicine — MediBud, Jack Herer, Chocolope, and MOB (a Maine native strain) — are displayed in a shiny glass case; some have strong indica properties (which induce sleep and relaxation) and others boast sativa properties (which stimulate appetite and increase energy). There are cannabis-infused tinctures and salves for sale, as well as a chopped "Baker's Mix" for cooking.
This is not the shadowy, smoky room that some may imagine. Wellness Connection marketing and communications director Patricia Rosi describes the space as "bright, welcoming, warm, open, clean, and simple. We're debunking stereotypes here." And she's right. It's definitely more akin to a sleek yoga studio than a dusty head shop (though those, too, have upped their game in recent years). While I was there for half an hour on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I saw five patients: a 30-something professional white female, a middle-aged white couple, an elderly black man, and a young white hipster. Like customers in any shop, they browsed, chatted, and went on the their way — except they had to show ID to get into the door in the first place.
"We're here to be the experts," says Becky DeKeuster, executive director of the Wellness Connection, explaining the patient-intake process, which includes questions about users' preferred mode of "delivery" (i.e., smoking versus eating versus vaporizing). The dispensary keeps track of patient response to "limited-edition strains," and considers those reactions when deciding what to include in the regular rotation. "We hope to be models for other states," she adds, noting that people from Massachusetts started reaching out to her on the day after that state's election.
Currently, the four Wellness Connection dispensaries (there four others, each run independently, in the state) serve 1400 patients and employ 31 workers, and they are nowhere near capacity. There's room to expand this business in Maine. (What effect legalization would have on Maine's not-for-profit dispensaries is unclear, but it's safe to say that having a retail operation already in place would be a boon in any place where pot moves into the mainstream.)
It's in this increasingly receptive environment that Diane Russell will pursue marijuana legalization through a legislative channel. Last week, Russell announced her intent to introduce a bill in the next legislative session that would legalize, tax, and regulate pot much like alcohol or tobacco, generating significant revenue. The bill contains provisions to ensure that marijuana is not sold or smoked in off-limits locations (such as school zones), and to prevent driving under the influence.
While a team of policymakers is reviewing the bill, looking for potential places to modify it and make it stronger, it is essentially the same one Russell introduced last year. In June, that proposal was defeated in the House 107-39.
"The difference is that we're looking at Washington and Colorado, and at Massachusetts," she says. "The culture has shifted dramatically since the last time I introduced the bill."
Indeed, NORML's St. Pierre suggests that the vote tallies in Colorado and Washington (both initiatives won handily) "reflect the national trendline. They're not aberrational. There are many times in American history where the population is way out ahead of the government, the courts, and regulatory bodies."
However, real change won't come until the federal government fundamentally alters its approach to marijuana. St. Pierre believes the best solution is to "deschedule" or "unschedule" marijuana (taking it off the list of controlled substances altogether), and place it within the purview of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. He believes that law enforcement organization, commonly referred to as the ATF, will have an "M" tacked onto its acronym within 20 years.
This won't be easy. Reformers are up against a bloated, sprawling prison industry, government officials who refuse to acknowledge (or even pay to research) the therapeutic value of marijuana, and a pharmaceutical industry not keen on seeing relatively inexpensive cannabis replace high-priced (and highly addictive, in some cases) synthetic drugs.
In the face of all this, the pot revolution must be spearheaded by the states. "If the federal government wants to intercede, the next rocket ride to the Supreme Court will not be driven by NORML, it'll be the states," St. Pierre says. (It's hard not to see the comparison between pot policy and same-sex marriage laws — popular opinion on both issues is evolving quickly, and progress is filtering up from the states in the face of superficial federal objections that are unevenly enforced.)
It is cash-strapped states that will realize the economic value of progressive pot laws, and forward-thinking states that will continue to push for practical reform.
"Legalizing marijuana for adults is a civil rights issue," says Melnick, of the ACLU. "Current drug laws infringe on individual liberty and medical privacy, contribute to over-incarceration, and exacerbate the effects of racial profiling and discrimination in our criminal justice system. It's high time for a change away from the ineffective, expensive and discriminatory policies of prohibition — and we look forward to helping make that change happen."