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On Election Day 2013, voters in Maine’s largest city sent a resounding message by voting to legalize adult possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana – by a massive 65%-35% margin. But while the vote was a huge win for Portland, it’s an even bigger win for the country.
To understand exactly why, we must go back in time about a century. In 1912, V.S. Robinson, an eminent New England physician, wrote an inflammatory pamphlet called “An Essay on Hasheesh.” While the essay itself is an hagiographic tribute to the good doctor’s favorite drug, its reception among the staid Puritans of New England could only be characterized as disastrous: in just a few years, nearly every New England state had passed some form of punitive restrictive cannabis policy, shocked by Robinson’s graphic descriptions of unbridled hash trips. Robinson’s plan totally backfired; instead of turning on a new generations of physicians to a powerful medicine, he terrified a populace with stories of a potent drug.
The timing could not have been worse. Just a year after Robinson’s essay began making the rounds, an unrelated social movement out west began to take root. First California (1913) then Utah (1915) began to join the likes of Massachusetts in criminalizing cannabis, motivated by xenophobic fears of Mexican immigrants fleeing civil war in their homeland. Stories abounded in the western press of sudden, violent reactions to “marihuana” among the immigrant populace, whipping up a stir of frenzy which would combine with New England Puritanism to create a perfect, bi-coastal political storm. Suddenly, reports came from both East and West that a new, dangerous drug had taken hold in America. By 1914, concerned citizens had already begun to agitate for cannabis’ inclusion in the punitive federal Harrison Act (constitutional concerns delayed federal cannabis prohibition until 1937, but in the meantime nearly every state government acted on its own to restrict the drug).
It could have gone very differently. Had the physicians of New England accepted Robinson’s thesis with an open mind, a very different national debate might have formed, pitting the xenophobic West against progressive doctors in the Northeast. The US may have opted out of a blanket criminalization, instead allowing for medical use of a popular drug. But the hysteria of New England put the whole country on the inevitable road to full prohibition, a policy which remains in place to this very day.
Now, the unity of New England pot policy is showing its cracks. The vote in Portland follows on the heels of successful medical reform in Massachusetts in 2012, and the Marijuana Policy Project, which had already set its sights on statewide reform for Maine in 2014, has become energized by the electoral win.
While no one can predict the future, we can learn from the past. And a major mistake made 100 years ago in the dim forests of New England is now getting corrected, in no uncertain terms.