"Humanitarian cease-fire" in the war on drugs

A Maine sheriff wants the Legislature to let authorities dole out confiscated pot to people who need medicinal marijuana.

Published March 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

What if law enforcement agencies started giving away marijuana confiscated in drug busts to the sick? That's an idea the Maine Legislature is pondering, and it's backed by a sheriff who's fed up with the barriers to getting medicinal marijuana to those who need it.

Voters in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon and Washington have legalized medicinal marijuana for the chronically ill. The Maine initiative, approved by voters in November, would allow patients to legally grow up to six plants for their own use. But even if the state approves it, those patients would still be breaking federal laws, and there'd no way for those who couldn't or didn't want to grow their own pot to get it legally.

So Maine's Legislature is pondering a bill that would let the state, instead of its sick citizens, take the legal risk. Sponsored by state Sen. Anne Rand, the bill would have the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency distribute confiscated plants to patients who were referred by their doctors and registered for the program.

The feds don't seem charmed by the idea. In a speech in California earlier this month, drug czar Barry McCaffrey called the medicinal marijuana movement "a crock."

But McCaffrey's position hasn't persuaded Sheriff Mark Dion of Maine to drop his support for the measure. By backing the initiative, Dion joined a "small fraternity" (as he described it to the New York Times) of law enforcement officers who have spoken out in favor of medicinal marijuana initiatives. Dion spoke with Salon by phone from his office in Cumberland County about what it means when the state breaks the law.

What does this bill aim to do?

The bill is asking the Maine Legislature to establish two things: one, a voluntary registry for identified and approved patients; and two, a process by which the state could provide either material or access to marijuana for the identified patients. That's the core of the bill.

Who would receive the marijuana?

Patients who had been referred by their doctors as a therapy of last resort.

The people of Maine voted and said listen, compassion and dignity outweigh prosecution, that if you suffer from certain identified illness[es] -- the wasting disease associated with AIDS, certain types of cancer, glaucoma under certain conditions, muscle spasticity from M.S. or other degenerative diseases -- then you ought to have access to marijuana, or at least your use of marijuana will not be considered a criminal act. With Rand's bill, it's simply saying, listen, the state drug enforcement agency, MDEA, seizes material -- is there a way that we could establish a pass-through? That's what's being debated right now in committee.

This is the first proposal of its kind in the nation, correct?

Yes, in terms of the state participating. The attorney general has elected, at the governor's direction, to form a task force where he's called a number of us to meet to look at these issues. We have some big ones to overcome.

One is, what's the federal response? It breaks federal law, and it would put police agents in an uncomfortable situation. And there's some risk associated with potential loss of federal revenues if the state does this. The state is certified by the U.S. attorney as meeting certain criteria in order to be eligible for its agencies, state, local or county, to receive federal funding. The U.S. attorney may not be able to certify us as drug-free if we're in the business of providing patients with marijuana. So there's a real legal issue there.

Whether [or not] we agree with the possibility or the appropriateness of that federal response, it does not diminish the fact that it does exist. My hope is to craft a strategy and a process that would satisfy the intent of the voters when they approved the referendum initiative and, at the same time, skirt the federal proscription.

What exactly was your role in the initiative?

I was approached by individuals associated with Mainers for Medical Rights and I agreed with them regarding the initiative. I've been speaking publicly in support of it. I think the notoriety that might have attached to my advocacy is due to the fact that I was the only law enforcement executive to support the initiative.

This makes you part of, as you put it in the New York Times, a "small fraternity" of law enforcement officers who are speaking out in favor of medicinal marijuana.

I don't think the state has an interest in criminalizing individuals who are combating fatal or chronic-pain illnesses. I think instead we should strive to increase the compassion in the community to help these individuals survive, or at least get through that in more control of themselves. That's what pain does -- it takes away your sense of control.

Were there experiences you had as a sheriff that led you to take this step?

There have been people in my own family who've died of cancer and who've battled with the side effects of chemotherapy. I think often when we look at those kinds of diseases, it's very easy to speak about them in an abstract way. But when you see that kind of suffering and [the] loss that occurs by the individuals -- and the significant others that are touched by their lives and eventually by their deaths -- you can't speak about that in the abstract. And if access to marijuana could ease that pain, could make that transition somehow more humane, then I felt a duty to speak out.

For me this was an ethical, a moral decision. I voted out of conscience. When you look at law enforcement, that's about making sure rules are obeyed. But justice is about finding the exceptions to those rules. I think this is a case where the citizens of Maine recognize that there should be an exception. And I support that.

Ten years ago I became vocal around the issue of gay rights in this state. I helped to establish the state's first hate crimes investigative unit. I witnessed a lot of good people die awful deaths.

Do you see this as a question of states' rights?

Absolutely. We are sovereign states. The Founders were very wise in that they always hoped there would be this tension between the federal government and the states. That's how you find the answers that make our communities better. In this instance, Maine has asserted itself as a state, and we've got to engage the federal government. I think the fact that other states are taking similar positions will begin a momentum that will ask the federal government to reevaluate its classification of marijuana.

How do you feel about the war on drugs?

I'm not here about saving a nation. I'm trying to make sure that our small piece of the country at least has the willingness and can exercise the leadership necessary to create a humanitarian cease-fire in that war.

We've got sick and dying people in our state. That's my goal right now, to make sure that those individuals are seen as someone other than criminals and can get access to the material that might enhance the quality of life that they have left.

In the attention that you've gotten over this, have you gotten any calls from Barry McCaffrey or other federal authorities?


The most interesting responses have been the thank-yous from people on the street, in the community. That's what counts. The regular person who's pushing a cart in the grocery aisle, who's standing in line at the corner store, they've said thanks that someone was willing to speak common-sensically and take some leadership to help people they knew who were sick and dying.

I was really touched by elderly people in a little luncheonette who were losing friends every day to cancer. They said, "You did the right thing, sheriff." That actually counts more for me than what some public official, somewhere else, says.

This isn't about whether we won some poll. It's about: "Did we do the right thing?" And I think we did. That might upset the status quo.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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