|Photo appropriated from the Portland Press Herald website, 'cause dammit Jim, I'm a writer not a photographer.|
Portland, Maine became the first city on the East Coast to legalize marijuana on November 5 with the passage of the city ordinance Question 1. The ordinance, which asks voters to legalize 2.5 ounces of marijuana for residents 21 and older, passed in a landslide with close to 70 percent of the vote. My colleagues and I in the Portland Green Independent Committee spearheaded the initiative back in January. We collected nearly 3,000 voter signatures to place the question on the ballot.
While the ordinance is specific only to Portland, our hope is its passage will set the precedent and model for the rest of the state. (Many politicos anticipate a statewide referendum in 2016.) We ultimately envision the state of Maine taxing and regulating marijuana as it does alcohol and other legal drugs.
Though local pundits and opinionators leveled a barrage of criticism and ridicule our way, there was no formal, organized opposition to the measure. The brief demonstrations of public protest proved inept, unprofessional and incomprehensible.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has told numerous local media outlets he intends to ignore the new law and continue treating marijuana possession in the city as a federal crime. The police chief's blatant disregard for the will of the voters is indeed contemptuous. This is the same person, keep in mind, who used lies and hyperbole this summer to convince the City Council to pass an overly broad and counterproductive ban of panhandling on median strips.
Maine is once again leading the way forward.
Decriminalizing marijuana is a sensible step toward ending the racist, economically unsustainable war on drugs. The U.S. spends more than $51 billion annually on a policy even former President Jimmy Carter believes is a failure. That is money that could be going to re-hire all those laid off teachers, repair our schools, roads and crumbling bridges, or even provide health care for every citizen.
Additionally, the drug war disproportionately targets minorities and people of color. According to statistics from the Drug Policy Alliance, African Americans constitute 37 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession nationwide, even though they use the drug at comparable rates to whites.
The U.S., it is worth noting, has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
It is important to understand this effort did not come out of either of the two political parties. It was the Greens working with the libertarian Marijuana Policy Project that enacted it.
Maine's Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree claims she supports marijuana legalization, but has taken no action in the House of Representatives to that end. What's stopping her...? State representative Diane Russell (D-Portland), meanwhile, introduced a legalization bill in the Legislature this summer. But she failed to even get it out of the committee. That is how supportive the Democrats are on this issue. And State Rep. Mark Dion, a Democrat who helped craft Maine's medical marijuana law back in 1999, snidely dismissed the will of the voters on WGME 13 as a glorified "opinion poll."
Throughout this campaign opponents constantly argued marijuana legalization is a "state issue," that should not be decided by Portland alone. They are correct. It should be a state-wide issue. But, with the notable exception of Rep. Russell, no one else in the Legislature is acting on it. The residents of Portland are tired of waiting for our lawmakers in Augusta.
Tuesday's vote is further proof that meaningful, substantive progressive change rarely, if ever, comes from the top-down. It comes from the bottom. It comes from hard-working, ordinary Americans most people have never heard of. Their names are conveniently left out of history textbooks. It comes from activists, labor leaders, socialists, anarchists, and third-parties. From people like Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Mary "Mother" Jones, Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair.
Most of these figures never achieved formal positions of power. Many were scornfully dismissed and savagely attacked by the power elite just as Ralph Nader, Edward Snowden and Jill Stein are today. Yet they used their books, writings, speeches, and organizing abilities to threaten those in power and demand real change.
"Democracy is not what governments do," the radical historian Howard Zinn said. "It's what people do."
As Zinn's dissident treatise, A People's History of the United States illustrates, all major progressive gains throughout this nation's history have come from outside the political sphere. Even such cornerstone victories of liberalism like Social Security and Medicare were not immediately embraced by the Democratic Party that, to this day, claims credit for them. Celebrated liberal figures like FDR and LBJ enacted their signature social reforms, Zinn observes, only when pushed and prodded by labor unions, activists and other citizen-led protests.
Roosevelt is said to have told a group of activists to "Make me do it." So they did.
The late Peter Camejo, who ran as Nader's vice presidential running-mate in 2004, concurs. In the 2006 documentary film, An Unreasonable Man, Camejo compares Nader's plight to that of Debs and Thomas. He says:
Every major progressive law in the United States--whether it's the right of women to vote, Social Security, the rights of the Labor Party--never [did] any of these proposals come out of the two major parties. They always came from the grassroots, from the people. And there were people who lead those struggles who were independent and not functioning as agents of those parties who were always called names and suffered personal abuse...Tuesday's victory is, no doubt, quite limited. It puts Maine--along with Colorado and Washington--in direct conflict with federal law. And its limit to one municipality in the state seems to make a statewide vote not only inevitable, but mandatory.
But it is a start. The Greens have made a small yet decisive crack in the machinery of the drug war. We have demonstrated that Mainers are ready for a more sensible, humane policy toward marijuana. Ignore the Establishment media that claim the new law is "meaningless" or "purely symbolic." They are, as is so often the case, out of step with their own readers.
As Maine goes...so goes the nation...