Attempts to legalize marijuana, both successful and failed, have a tendency to exacerbate a little-discussed but important chasm between activists at the local level and those who work from Washington, D.C.
The split is currently playing out in Maine, where two groups are locked in a tight money race to get their cannabis reform proposals on the ballot in November 2016. The fight is in its early stages, and both campaigns are raising money at a rapid clip, but the groups couldn’t be more different.
One, the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Maine, raised more $50,000 between January and the end of March, almost all of it from the national Marijuana Policy Project. The other, Legalize Maine, raised $30,000, all of it by way of small local donations.
Division threatens marijuana reform
There are few signs that the differences between the groups threaten legalization in Maine, but they point to an increasing obstacle for reform efforts. And this local-vs-national divide has helped kill legal cannabis movements in the past.
For evidence, look no further than California, where two separate legalization initiatives, one in 2010, the other in 2014, fell apart as disparate groups failed to agree on the details of a single coherent ballot proposal. Some of those groups got their money from Washington while others had grassroots funding.
Localized organizations are typically staffed with battle-hardened marijuana proponents who have been fighting the same stupid state laws for decades. Campaigns backed by national money tend to work with a more professional air. They’re better with politicians and lawyers but not always with activists on the ground.
Vastly different proposals
They also tend to produce vastly different proposals for reform. The California efforts that relied on national money pushed initiatives that would have legalized small amounts of marijuana under tight regulations. The local groups pushed initiatives that would have legalized much larger amounts under much weaker rules.
The same distinctions are at play in Maine. The locals behind Legalize Maine are proposing unlimited possession at home, plus possession of up to 2.5 ounces in public. The Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would limit possession to one ounce, though it would allow cultivation of up to six plants.
The two proposals would also levy different taxes: Legalize Maine would tax marijuana at 8 percent while the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would tax it at 10 percent, on top of the state’s 5.5 percent standard sales tax.
The competing groups aren’t exactly at each other’s throats, at least not yet. But each side predicts its approach will prevail in 2016.
“Until we see their campaign finance report, we can’t make a judgment,” Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, said of the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. “But we know that Mainers are sick and tired of seeing big money from D.C. coming up and polluting our politics.”
David Boyer, who leads the committee and is also state political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said his group has already attracted support from local voters.
The committee’s money, he said, has come “from people all over this country and Maine that want to see marijuana prohibition ended and replaced. [But] ultimately, it’s going to be Maine voters that sign our petition and Maine voters that pass it, so I think that’s the important thing.”