Public forum on marijuana highlights need for inclusive debate

The organizers of the “Marijuana in the New Millenium” public forum in Bangor on Wednesday seemed to expect a more unruly crowd than they ended up with. The moderator began by making it abundantly clear that no heckling would be allowed.

In this exquisitely stage-managed event, there was no heckling. There was also no space for real audience engagement, or for nuanced exploration of the data and anecdotes that were presented. Questions for the panel were pre-submitted via the Bangor Daily News website, vetted by the organizers, and, judging by the prepared responses of most panelists, shared with them ahead of the event.

Keynote speaker Thomas Gorman is director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), a special project of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). There are 28 HIDTAs in the U.S.; Gorman’s unit covers Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

His ostensible reason for visiting Maine was to share information on how legalization is progressing in Colorado. Interestingly, he felt it necessary to offer a disclaimer that his presentation did not represent the views of the ONDCP or the White House.

Gorman is a personable speaker with a folksy patter that can smooth the edges of even the roughest logical fallacy. (Conflating correlation with causation was prominently featured, among others.) His talk was built around highlights from the most recent RMHIDTA report on the progress of regulated adult-use cannabis legalization in Colorado, which was issued last week and is available in PDF form by Googling “RMHIDTA 2015.”

Far better minds than mine have dissected the RMHIDTA data, and in Forbes magazine no less. But I was taken with Gorman’s concept-framing slide listing the four primary factors affecting rates of drug use as: Price; Availability; Perception of risk; Public attitude.

Public attitudes have shifted massively in favor of legalization over the last several years.

In a parallel shift, now that more than half of US citizens live in a state where medical and/or adult-use cannabis is legal and regulated, the perception of risk from using has decreased—perhaps, but not certainly, because a significant factor in that perception is the risk of legal interaction.

Availability increases in a regulated market, even as price declines. Gorman showed a slide showing where the “illicit trade” in cannabis moves when it does leave now-fully-legal Colorado; the case numbers were highest in the ‘grey belt’ of non-medical, non-adult-use states running from Texas up through the Midwest to Canada.

Gorman did not seem to appreciate the real lesson of this slide: When legal, regulated access squeezes the illicit market balloon in one state, the excess flows to states with limited or no legal access.

A panel discussion followed Gorman’s keynote, using the pre-vetted questions solicited by the BDN. Among the panelists: the director of the Maine chapter of Project SAM, a county sheriff, the ED of a substance abuse treatment center. Again, no audience questions and no heckling. Yet there was an edge to a few of the vetted questions: “Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to gather a group to address the opioid crisis in Maine?”

One panelist neatly inverted reality by repeatedly referring to legalizing adult use as “un-regulation.” Another referred to the “one-sided conversation” coming from legalization proponents. Yet another provided a heartfelt anecdote about a former student who ended up in their abuse recovery program.

Panelist Scott Gagnon, director of SAM-Maine and a fellow BDN blogger, surprised me when he was asked whether he could envision “a practical model for national legalization.”

Of course his first reaction was an unequivocal “No.”

But then he questioned whether the regulated adult-use cannabis industry would ever accept regulations that address Gorman/RMHIDTA’s four points (refresher: Price, Availability, Perception of risk, Public attitude). He thinks not; we disagree on this point.

The regulated legal markets in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska are already working through these sorts of regulations.

Both Gorman and the panel moderator closed their respective sections of the evening by urging attendees to seek out factual information. As Gorman said, “There’s a lot of rhetoric, a lot of b.s., a lot of spin. So we (RMHIDTA) give you the facts and let you decide.”

Maine voters do deserve the facts. They should hear from, and participate in, the discussion of what legal, regulated, adult-use cannabis should and shouldn’t look like in Maine. Carefully manicured events like “Marijuana in the New Millennium” do not move us any closer to that goal.

We should be looking for opportunities to bring together speakers like those who graced the Gracie this week, along with harm reduction specialists, operators of regulated dispensaries, patients, health care providers who do and do not certify patients, caregivers, and at least one Nate-Silver-style statistician. In short, we need public forums where the public has a voice.

Wellness Connection of Maine

About Wellness Connection of Maine

Established in 2011, Wellness Connection of Maine operates four state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries in Bath, Brewer, Gardiner and Portland. Our dispensaries are safe, inviting, spacious and accessible wellness centers fusing the best features of a pharmacy, community center and wellness practice in one convenient location. Under one roof, all your medical cannabis and full-spectrum wellness needs are answered by our member liaisons, passionate experts who care and partner with you on your journey to improved quality of life. – Peruse through our extensive library of educational books and magazines. – Enjoy a free coffee/tea and wifi in the comfort of our welcoming community center. – Attend educational events and seminars such as Medical Cannabis 101 or Cooking with Cannabis. – Other services as available, always at no cost to our patients