The Maine State House in Augusta. Credit: Jim Bowen / Flickr

Maine’s legislature is considering whether or not to eliminate past drug convictions as a restriction against caregivers or operator license status as a means to address the desire for social equity in the market.

“Equity must be at the heart of cannabis legalization. Legalization alone cannot heal the harm from the war on drugs or mass incarceration, but efforts across the states can ensure that legalization does not perpetuate those same harms,” wrote State Rep. Margaret O’Neil. “Legalization must benefit individuals and communities most harmed by the war on drugs, namely people of color and people with low incomes.”

The written testimony was submitted in anticipation of what was supposed to be a public hearing on Friday, Feb. 25, but was postponed due to a snow storm. The public hearing will now take place at 9:00 a.m. on March 2.

The bill, LD1957, amends existing state laws, replacing “marijuana” with cannabis in language, and more impactfully, eliminates restrictions on individuals with prior drug convictions from becoming caregivers or employees in the state’s medical cannabis industry.

As the adult use cannabis market, along with the caregiver market in the state has flourished there is increased interest in creating greater access for those affected by the War on Drugs.

“In Maine, we have erected roadblocks barring community members with a criminal record from growing plants as medicine and from participating in our state’s burgeoning cannabis industry,” wrote O’Neil. “Since 1999, Maine has been a leader in legalization efforts. Cannabis has now become our most valuable agricultural commodity, surpassing blueberries and potatoes, per 2020 data.”

At this point several organizations have submitted public testimony in support of the bill, with no comments in opposition.

“Although possession of small amounts of cannabis was decriminalized in Maine in 1976, it remains a federal crime and many states still impose criminal penalties for it,” wrote Michael Kebede, attorney for the ACLU of Maine. “The racial disparities in who is arrested for cannabis possession in Maine are startling: a 2020 ACLU study found that Black people in Maine were four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession in 2018.”

The change from “marijuana” to “cannabis” is significant in that the former term was popularized from a racially motivated media campaign almost 100 years ago.

“The term ‘marijuana’ was not commonly used in the United States until the 1920s and 1930s,” wrote Kebede. “During that time, those attempting to enshrine prohibition tried tying use of cannabis to Mexico and Mexicans by referring to it as ‘marijuana,’ in an effort to stigmatize and racialize its use.”

Susan Meehan of the Maine Cannabis Coalition supported the bill, arguing that normalizing cannabis also requires correcting the results of past stigmas to the plant.

“We need to stop bastardizing this plant. We need to stop jailing our people for this plant,” she wrote. “We need to make legal access safe and easy to protect our families from illegal access from criminals lacing product with deadly pharmaceutical drugs like fentanyl. Kill the stigma, pass this bill, and start making this right.”

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...