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Maine Legalization Race Stays Crazy/Amazing Right to the End

Published on November 9, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Wooden Lobster Traps On A Dock With Fishing Boats In Bernard At Bass Harbor Maine

Talk about a nail-biter. At 2:30 a.m. in Portland, Maine, about 30 hardcore supporters of Question 1 remained in the aptly named Longfellow Room on High Street. Despite having exhausted their collective refresh fingers, legalization advocates were still upbeat and having a good time when security guards from the Westin Hotel told ‘em they had 15 minutes to vacate the conference room. So volunteers rushed to remove campaign signs, balloons and television monitors. By 2:45 a.m. the place was empty.

At 3am, the Bangor Daily News called it: Yes on Question 1.

Thirteen minutes later, though, with 86 percent of precincts reporting, the Bangor Daily News called the race, 50.9 to 49.1 with the Yes vote up by about 8,000 Mainers. The news spread quickly and supporters celebrated — albeit via social media — before hitting the sheets, only to awaken the next morning to the news that continued overnight vote tabulation reduced the Yes lead by half.

By noon Wednesday, though, the Yes on 1 folks claimed victory, as the last numbers trickled in and were slowly reported by media.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

In the early afternoon, news came of a delay with a ballot machine in the central Maine town of Sabattus. That was followed by reports that election workers in the southern coastal town of Scarborough may not have included 2,700 absentee ballots in the final tally. According to Maine Public Radio, “the confusion of early morning hours” were to blame.

While the “Campaign to Regulate Marijuana in Maine” spent more than a million bucks on a massive TV ad buy, they faced a fierce, two pronged-attack from prohibitionists and medical marijuana growers opposed to legalization. As the campaign wound down, all three sides resorted to on-line name calling and live debates that often turned testy or raucous.

“I think there’s been a vast amount of misinformation going around about legalization of marijuana generally and what this specific initiative would do to the state,” said Alysia Melnick, political director for the campaign, just prior to being thrown out of the Longfellow Room. “I think if voters really understood what the facts are, we would be in a very different situation and we’d be up by a lot.”

While campaign manager David Boyer acknowledged that late-in-the-race fear-mongering by Gov. Paul LePage and the state attorney general didn’t help the legalization vote, he was more upset with what he views as betrayal by some in the medical marijuana community. Especially by Dr. Dustin Sulak, the state’s leading medical marijuana doctor.

“We’re disappointed Dr. Sulak sent an email to his patients urging them to vote no. He knows the benefits of marijuana and he knows that not everyone has access,” Boyer said. “It had us scratching our heads. And we’re disappointed in [Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine] for telling people to vote no. It’s just protectionism. We knew it was going to be close and we could have used their votes.”

After a quick digestion of the voting data, this is obvious: Q1 did best where lots of people smoke cannabis but have a tough time growing it, like near the coast, where there are more cops and the late summer fog often encourages the growth of molds and mildew. However, in Maine’s interior swath, aka the Marijuana Belt, the vote was much tighter.

Legalization goes bicoastal

With the passage of Question 1, cannabis legalization becomes a truly bi-coastal American phenomenon, with the three major Down East border communities — Eastport, Lubec and Calais, all voting in favor of legalization. It was a two-vote squeaker in Calais (pronounced Cal-lus) where 737 residents voted yes, and 735 of their neighbors voted no.

While legalization advocates were obviously happy with the vote, they acknowledge that it’s just the first step towards legalization. Now come eight months of public hearings and meetings as the citizen initiative gets tweaked and implemented by lawmakers. The narrow margin of passage is also raising concerns about a recount request by either prohibitionists or angry medical marijuana caregivers looking for one last chance to throw a wrench in the works.

According to state law, in races ending with less than a 1.5 percent split in the vote, it takes a hundred voters to sign a petition to trigger a recount. The last time that happened around here, back in 2010 when a western Maine casino was approved by voters, the recount process was ended after checking 20 percent of votes without any real change in the tally.

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Will Gov. LePage block it? Can he?

Back in the Longfellow Room, during the early hours of waiting for results, Melnick raised the spectre of possible interference by Maine Gov. Paul LePage. She’s not being paranoid. LePage has a history of screwing with referenda, especially when it comes to bond issues. The state still hasn’t borrowed about $11.5 million in conservation bonds approved by voters last year because LePage wants more timber harvesting on public lands as a trade-off.

What happens if LePage does try to mess with the will of the people, perhaps by ordering his department commissioners to slow-walk or endlessly delay the implementation process? “We’ll sue him,” Melnick answered grimly. Those aren’t empty words. Melnick is known across the state as a social justice lawyer who gets things done.

There’s an old political saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” If the path to legalization in the easternmost state is any indicator, the rest of the country should take note. Perhaps hard work and messy political sausage-making is the tough price we pay in order to end decades of mindless and wasteful prohibition of such a wondrous flower.

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Crash Barry
Crash Barry
Crash Barry has written extensively about Maine’s cannabis culture. He’s the author of the true story Marijuana Valley and the gritty memoir Tough Island. He adapted his novel, Sex, Drugs and Blueberries, into a full-length film of the same name. He lives in western Maine near a marijuana grove.
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