Marijuana legalization supporters attempt to silence opposition through intimidation and stigma

The other Bangor Daily News blog that writes about marijuana, Cannabis Today, published an article bemoaning “simplistic rhetoric.” In her article, Wellness Connection’s Becky DeKeuster takes issue with Representative Deborah Sanderson’s reference to the potential Wal-Martization of the marijuana industry in Maine. Wellness Connection, which runs half of Maine’s dispensaries, takes issue with that label. More power to them, because I do agree that taking a complex issue, or a complex side of an issue, and boiling it down into simple rhetoric and pejoratives is quite unhelpful. I do think, however, it is time for some in the legalization movement to practice what DeKeuster is preaching, and stop boiling down the broad opposition to marijuana legalization into simplistic rhetoric.

I have been heading up Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine for over two years now, representing the public health and prevention side of the marijuana legalization debate. Part of our mission is to inform this debate with the science of today’s marijuana. But the other part that has evolved is to provide a platform for those Mainers with concerns, to have their voices and concerns heard. Those voices come from many sectors of the community including business leaders, educators, scientists, faith leaders, law enforcement, community leaders, along with parents and youth. Providing this strength-in-numbers platform has become an increasingly important part of SAM Maine’s role, because it is clear, when you stand up to voice your concerns, there will  be many voices attempting to silence you through rhetoric, name-calling, and intimidation.

Since I started back in 2013 I’ve been called every name in the book. Just look at the comment sections of my marijuana-focused articles for the BDN. I’ve been called brown-shirt, Nazi, Al Qaeda, terrorist, along with a bunch of things I can’t say because they’d violate decency standards. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve suggested I should develop cancer. The attempt is to intimidate me and my allies into silence. But it’s not going to happen. I am the sort of person who has a pretty thick skin. To put it frankly, I just don’t care what these people think of me.  I became involved in this issue, not to become Mr. Popularity, but because I believe strongly it is vitally important to the future of Maine. That said, those who are trying to voice their concerns for their communities shouldn’t be pressured through intimidating rhetoric to be silent. That’s not how this democratic process is supposed to work.

Where legalization supporters aren’t trying to silence opposition through intimidation and vulgarity, they are trying to silence through stigma. Two of the more common stigmatizing pejoratives used by many pro-marijuana forces are “prohibitionist” and “reefer madness”. “Reefer Madness” of course is in reference to the film from the late 1930’s. The reality is that the substance abuse prevention field has been grounded in science and evidence for decades. If you do federally-funded substance abuse prevention work, it is a requirement that all programs and practices are based in evidence and science. If you proposed “reefer madness” approaches your funding would be pulled. However, that doesn’t stop the ham-fisted labelling and stigmatizing from some pro-legalization advocates.

If you are a Mom who opposes legalization because you don’t want a pot shop in your neighborhood, you are a “prohibitionist”. If you are an educator who opposes legalization because you know it will increase barriers to education, you are accused of promoting “reefer madness.” This kind of language and simplistic rhetoric does exactly what DeKeuster says she is against. It sidesteps and ignores the complex public health issue and boils it down into pejoratives. Whether pro-marijuana legalization forces like it or not, there is an abundance of science that shows the impact of legal drug dispensaries on youth and academics. But if you can’t defend your policy proposal against that science, then I guess the next best thing is to just paint your opposition as “reefer madness” prohibitionists and pretend there isn’t an argument to be had.

You will never hear anyone from SAM Maine talk about “potheads” or “stoners”. One reason is that most of us involved with SAM Maine have prevention and public health backgrounds and understand the role of language and stigma. We aren’t out to demonize and stigmatize people who use marijuana. Moreover, our movement isn’t focused on people using marijuana. This isn’t about them at all. For us it is about the harms a legalized and commercialized marijuana market would pose to youth and communities. The person who is using marijuana at home is not our issue. We have been very clear about that from the beginning. Yet, some of our opponents will still frame us as the marijuana SWAT team looking to punish anyone who so much as thinks about marijuana.

Pleasantly, what I am describing in this article isn’t universal amongst all marijuana legalization supporters. I’ve had a number of one-on-one meetings with folks from the Maine marijuana community, including caregivers, medical marijuana patients, and dispensary owners. A common remark in these meetings has been, “Oh, you aren’t what I expected at all.” When we sit down and talk person-to-person, the stereotypes melt away. When we provide an opportunity to truly hear each other, listen to each other’s concerns, suddenly we see common ground that we didn’t think existed before. In particular I have been very appreciative of the conversations I’ve been able to have with Legalize Maine’s Paul McCarrier. Certainly, we don’t agree on legalization, but the congenial, human, non-judgemental conversations have been productive in their own right. We understand where the other is coming from, and I think that is important.

Marijuana policy is a serious issue that requires serious examination. It must be thoroughly debated in the coming months and all Mainers should be empowered and have a space to offer their concerns and perspectives. Rhetoric and pejoratives with the intent to intimidate rob Mainers of that opportunity. Yes, there are passionate positions on both sides of this issue. Ultimately, in many places we will have to agree to disagree and see what happens at the ballot box. But, let’s also all agree to be agreeable and let everyone have their voice.

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.