Back in 1999, just ten months into his 12-year stint as the sheriff of Cumberland County, Maine, Mark Dion broke ranks and infuriated Maine’s law enforcement community by endorsing the state’s first medical marijuana referendum. And the former street cop-turned-lawyer-and-legislator never regretted the choice.
“I just felt it was the right decision,” he recently recalled. “My chief deputy got down on one knee at my desk and begged me not to do it. In their minds, I was shaking the temple arches. They didn’t want to hear it, but it was time to start talking about a new direction for drug enforcement.”
Opening minds and taking heat: A street cop turned legislator speaks out for regulated legalization.
Now, in the final dash towards election day, Dion has become a leading spokesman for the Yes on 1 vote to legalize adult use marijuana in Maine. As the star of one of the most powerful Yes on 1 commercials, Dion’s police pedigree, coupled with his current gig as a defense attorney and state lawmaker, added the unusual stamp of establishment approval to the pro-cannabis campaign.
Back in 1977, when Dion first donned a Portland police uniform, such a role would have been hard to imagine. Such is the distance we’ve come on the issue of legalization.
In the TV spots, Dion explains how legalization would allow police to focus energy on actual crime, rather than marijuana users. Since the ads aired, he’s been surprised by the number of mostly younger cops approaching him, expressing support for Question 1. “They say ‘you know I can’t go public because the people above me are against it, but what you are saying makes sense.’” He’s also received hate mail from former brothers-in-uniform. “They’ve written to say what I’ve done sickens them. Which is strong, harsh language. Not sure how to respond to that. I don’t want people to drive impaired and I want it regulated. I just want to treat marijuana in a reasonable fashion. Is that too much to ask?”
Yes, according to Gov. Paul LePage.
In early October, the orotund governor threw the first reefer madness bomb by posting a Facebook video recommending a no vote, and warning Mainers that THC levels in edibles were strong enough to kill children and pets. (They are not. THC has never killed a human being in recorded history.) And he blamed cannabis, not Big Pharma and their pill pushing doctors, for the state’s raging opioid addiction epidemic. A couple of days later, though, the governor’s erratic rant disappeared from social media (though it’s available for viewing here and below). LePage has been uncharacteristically silent, at least about marijuana, for the last couple of weeks.
More of an October surprise, though, was the “vote no” plea by state Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat and frequent foe of our notorious governor. Despite the ballot question’s explicit “for adults 21 and over” wording—the phrase appears 26 times in the 30 page proposal—it was her “expert legal opinion” that passage of Question 1 would legalize marijuana possession and use by children.
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Soon the prohibitionists were quoting the AG’s opinion as law, and trumpeting her message again and again. “Passage of this referendum would make it legal for your children to possess marijuana,” wrote Bishop Robert Deeley, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. In an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News, Deeley referred to legal-for-kids canard as “a fact recently confirmed by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.” Deeley went on to urge voters to reject the referendum in order to protect Maine’s kids. Which is eye-poppingly ironic, considering the dozens of accusations of child sexual abuse haunting the Maine diocese from the last decade, plus multiple allegations that pedophile priests were knowingly foisted upon unsuspecting Maine parishes by church administrators. You’re welcome to read more about those actual facts here, here, and here.
Then Stephanie Anderson, longtime District Attorney for Cumberland County, continued the barrage by repeating the AG’s rhetoric at TV debates and newspaper editorial board meetings. Over and over, Anderson insisted that marijuana was “addictive and dangerous” and that legalization is “like selling your kids into servitude…we’re basically throwing our youth down the drain if we go along with this.”
During a public television debate in late October, Anderson told of a recent fact-finding mission to Colorado, where she discovered that THC was “sprayed on” edibles. And, upon learning that eating a single gummy bear was enough to get high, she scoffed. “Nobody eats one gummy bear,” she insisted. “And why is marijuana looking like a gummy bear?”
Anderson’s claim struck some observers as odd, given that Colorado regulators actually banned the sale of cannabis edibles in the shape of animals, people, or fruit on July 1.
Anderson also showed visible disdain for the recommended dosage for double-strength Coloradan Swedish Fish. (Again: Illegal in Colorado after July 1.) After complaining to the budtender about having to “bite the Swedish Fish in half and wait forty-five minutes to get high,” the “nice young man” suggested she smoke the ganja instead.
Then, lest the Republican DA be viewed too draconian to the public television audience, she cavalierly explained how under current Maine law, possession of up to 150 joints wasn’t even a criminal charge. (Apparently the DA rolls half-gram pinners, which most Mainers would classify as criminally small spliffs.) To top it off, without explanation, she asserted that legalization would create a large bureaucracy and more work for police departments and the courts.
“We’ve been getting ready for thirty years.”
The normally exuberant Mark Dion turns weary when discussing Anderson. He’s battled her, literally, for decades. “At one point, she worked hard to get me un-elected,” he sighed. “She said I was too liberal and out-of-control.”
As for Anderson’s argument that legalization is unnecessary since possession is usually considered a civil offense, Dion sounds even more exasperated. After lengthy careers in law enforcement, she and he both are “numb to what those words mean, and their consequences.” While the fine for civil possession is usually four or five hundred bucks, the impact lasts much longer, Dion said, especially for younger people. “When you go back to apply for financial aid, the Feds look at [the civil charge] as a drug conviction and you stand a good chance of either losing your financial aid package or having it suspended for a couple of years.”
Passing Question 1, Dion believes, would give the legislature permission to make marijuana policy.
In his law practice, Dion has represented many clients concerned because employers and housing vendors often consider a civil cannabis charge to be a drug offense. “They don’t fine-tune civil versus criminal,” he said. A current client, a nursing student is “freaking out” because she was recently adjudicated as having a usable amount of marijuana, which she fears will be considered a black mark against her “moral character” when she graduates and goes looking for a job. “There are many adverse consequences,” Dion said, “in real time and emotionally for people we tag that way.”
Dion frequently bemoans the disconnect between law enforcement leadership and the practical reality of policy-making, such as the September announcement by the Maine Association of Chiefs of Police urging a “no” vote on Question 1.
“We think this is going to impact our communities and our youth in the worst way possible,” Falmouth Police Chief Ed Tolan, president of the group, told reporters at the time. “Law enforcement and the state are not ready to manage the problems associated with legalization.”
“Not ready?” Dion said with snort. “How much more notice could we have given them? We’ve been getting ready for thirty years, since decriminalization. Medical marijuana was the last step. Makes me sit back in my chair and say ‘C’mon.’”
Dion’s other hat as a three-term state representative (now running virtually unopposed for state senate) makes him uniquely qualified to view the complexity of legalization from both the law enforcement and lawmaker perspective. And as someone who has introduced legalization legislation and cannabis-friendly bills to his statehouse comrades several times in recent years, he knows both cops and lawmakers need prodding to take action.
A yes vote by the people, he believes, would give the legislature permission to make decisions about marijuana policy. “Right now, they can duck it,” he explained, “but if we’re told as a body to work out the details, that’s an entirely different posture for them to adopt. And I think [legislators] will be able to work with that.”
Some of his pals in law enforcement, he admits, might be tougher to convert. “But cops are like granite. They’ll hold the line until we make a crack and then it’ll come tumbling down,” he said. “When it happens, it will happen very quickly. And it will make us wonder ‘How did we once believe it was granite?’ That’s why we need to keep working the chisel until we find that vein and it cracks.”