“It’s a wonderful stroke in defense of childhood, those little ones who are to become the future citizens of this great republic. Where is there one on all the earth who can name one redeeming feature of old John Barleycorn?” — From a letter to the Rockland Courier-Gazette on December 13, 1919 (the eve of Prohibition), under the title “Making the World Safe”

Many Rocklanders use recreational drugs. There is, in fact, a drug so widely consumed in Rockland that some local commercial establishments exist primarily to serve its users. This substance is psychoactive and neurotoxic, and countless studies and personal experiences have confirmed its potential danger. We refer, of course, to alcohol, a substance used, brewed, distilled, bought, and sold by humans for thousands of years.

On November 8, 2016, Maine voters legalized the recreational use, retail sale, and taxation of marijuana (collectively called “adult use”). Two and a half years later, the state government is still working out the details, but recreational retail sales are coming to Maine, likely within the year. On November 6, 2018, Rockland voters answered four local referendum questions concerning marijuana at the polls. The results of three of these questions supported medical and some recreational sales in Rockland, but a majority of voters opposed allowing adult-use stores downtown.

We ask: Why not adult-use stores downtown? These stores will only be for retail sales, as marijuana “social clubs” are currently forbidden by the state. Many people are more than comfortable with Rockland’s alcohol-serving restaurants, bars, and breweries. Yet scientific studies have strongly indicated that the harm inflicted by alcohol is far greater than that of marijuana, including an oft-cited 2010 study in the medical journal The Lancet. A 2015 study published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health validated the Lancet study and other similar studies “especially in regard to the positions of alcohol (highest) and cannabis (lowest).” While there are some risks involved with marijuana use, the primary dangers associated with marijuana are due to its criminalization.

So why is marijuana perceived by some as a greater threat than alcohol?

One answer might lie in the long, racist, xenophobic campaign against marijuana by the federal government and media, associating marijuana with Latinx, African-American, jazz, and hippie cultures. While the prohibition of alcohol also originated in part in moral panics with racist, classist, and anti-immigrant underpinnings, the campaign against marijuana is more recent.

Harry Anslinger, an architect of modern marijuana prohibition, was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His efforts culminated in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, which effectively outlawed the drug. At the time Anslinger began his crusade, what many people now call “marijuana” was then called “cannabis.” Anti-cannabis activists intentionally used the Spanish term “marijuana” and took pains to associate it with Mexicans, conjuring fears of dark-skinned “foreigners” invading and destabilizing white U.S. culture. Sound familiar?

In “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis,” University of Kansas professor Barney Warf writes: “Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers. […] Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children, and engaging in murderous sprees.”

Later on, cannabis was linked to a counterculture that threatened establishment values, and its illegality was used as cover for destroying Black liberation, anti-war, and other social justice movements. In a 2016 Harper’s Magazine article, journalist Dan Baum writes that Nixon aide John Ehrlichman had recounted, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

So here in Rockland, in 2019, we have to wonder why recreational stores downtown would be more threatening than our bars, breweries, and alcohol-serving restaurants. We don’t think most people want cannabis businesses to crowd out all others and dominate our downtown — but we also think that that is extremely unlikely to happen. We know from personal experience in Alaska and Colorado (two states that have legalized recreational use and allow retail sales) that those states have not been overrun by cannabis-hungry hordes. The cannabis businesses that we saw there were professional, well-maintained, creative, and secure. Both states have benefited from enormous cannabis-related tax and tourism revenue. But in one regard, the critics are right. Both places are teeming with recreational drug users: they like a little wine with dinner, or a beer after work.