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Legalization Case Study
A tale of two cities: Marijuana legalization in Portland, Maine

When Maine state Sen. Roger Katz went to Denver to meet with Colorado state officials to learn about the impact that the legalization of marijuana had on its state, he walked down the street in Denver and saw three guys smoking joints.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Is this really what we want to have happen in Maine?’ ” said Katz, a Republican who is the co-chairman of Maine’s legislative committee on marijuana legalization implementation.

After the trip he flew back to Maine, and was walking in downtown Portland.

“I fly back to Portland, and I see three guys on the corner smoking a joint,” he said. “This is before legalization. For me, the issue is, if it’s going to be legal, then let’s do it in a way so that people who are getting it know that it’s safe … and that we appropriately tax it.”

Katz’s wish was granted. The Maine Marijuana Legalization Measure, also known as Question 1, passed narrowly in November 2016. Just 50.26 percent of Maine’s voters supported the measure, which legalized recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21. However, it was just last summer that the state passed marijuana legalization legislation, as Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a staunch opponent of legalization, vetoed an earlier piece of legislation.

As part of a two-part series, The Journal Times is looking at two U.S. cities of similar size to Racine where recreational marijuana use has been legalized and what effect it has had on the community. On Sunday The Journal Times featured Medford, Oreg. Today we take readers to Portland, Maine.

The legislation in Maine allows cities and counties to have a say about growing operations, but the state will still have to consider specifics such as inspection and the licensing of commercial growing facilities and retail sellers. However, previous legislation does allow citizens at least 21 years old to grow six mature plants and possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

Go-slow approach

“It’s been a long process and it continues to be a long process,” said Katz, who added that retail sales might not start until late 2019.

It is because of this that the direct impact on Portland has yet to be seen. At 67,000 citizens, Portland is the most populous city in Maine. It is 100 miles north of Boston and offers views of the Atlantic Ocean.

The City of Portland has been working internally to get prepared for the state’s upcoming rules. They envision zoning and licensing/registration issues to be decided at the city level. This is something that the city manager, mayor and City Council of Portland are working on together.

“We are kind of taking a go-slow approach, and I’m OK with that,” said Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling. “We have to regulate it much better than we have done with alcohol and cigarettes. I think we have to be very careful about how we allow it.”

A spokesperson for City Manager Jon Jennings said he agrees that the city needs to take its time and be thoughtful and “consider all impacts.”

However, the city will not be allowed to tax the retail sale of marijuana, as the state doesn’t have a history of allowing a local-option sales tax. A 20 percent state sales tax on the item would put Maine level with Oregon as having the lowest retail sales tax of the item in the U.S.

Although this is upsetting to Mayor Strimling, who would like to see a local sales tax, Katz did say that cities have a “tremendous amount of power” when it comes to choosing how to enforce marijuana laws. Portland could decide to say it wants no commercial activity at all, including production or sales of the product.

“We opted to be fairly conservative on how we rolled this out,” said Katz.

The state is in the process of hiring a consultant to translate the legislation that was passed last summer into regulations that would set up a licensing process for retail shops, growers, manufacturers and testing labs. The state will need to approve these regulations by April, meaning it could be close to the end of 2019 until a single license is approved.

The patience the state and city are showing on the matter is upsetting to some, however, as there are currently no licensed recreational marijuana shops open in Portland, or anywhere else across the state, leading some to go to nearby Massachusetts, which has begun to issue marijuana retail licenses.

Medical marijuana

The Wellness Connection of Maine is a medical marijuana dispensary with a location in Portland. It serves more than 6,000 people across the state and is currently the largest cannabis provider in Maine. There are more than 3,000 licensed medical marijuana caregivers across the state.

WCM offers more than 150 products, including medicated edibles, cooking products and vapes. Maine has allowed the prescribing and limited possession of medical marijuana since 1999. Patricia Rosi, the CEO of WCM, says she has heard a number of myths and misconceptions about marijuana since she started working in the industry.

“A lot of folks think it’s a dark cave and there’s a lot of smoke and we’re all wearing tie-dye T-shirts, but we’re quite the opposite,” she said. “We choose real estate in downtown and main street areas with a preference for large and bright spaces and reclaiming old building.”

Since 2011, WCM has been advocating for recreational legalization across the state. Rosi is starting to lose patience in the process.

“It’s been a very long process, and at times it’s very frustrating. There’s been a lot of confusion over the last two years,” Rosi said. “It’s very challenging to keep up with all the nuisances and variations because basically everyone is doing it very different.”

But remaining patient is something that continues to be important to Mayor Strimling.

“We will learn a lot more when we start issuing permits, but I think the slow approach is the way to go,” the mayor said.

“We are kind of taking a go-slow approach, and I’m OK with that ... We have to regulate it much better than we have done with alcohol and cigarettes. I think we have to be very careful about how we allow it.” Ethan Strimling, mayor of Portland, Maine


Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws a pass during the first half of an Sunday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. For more on Sunday's matchup of NFC North rivals, turn to Sports, Page B1.

A medical breakthrough
New operation gives hope to those living with epilepsy

RACINE — Jon Duchac enjoys the little things. Almost every morning, he takes time to read from a green, paperback meditation book on his front porch down the street from Horlick Field. Smoking a cigarette or two, the 60-year-old taps ashes into a bucket, watching birds chirp and waving at neighbors.

For the past four decades, finding a moment’s peace hasn’t always been this easy for Duchac.

He suffers from epilepsy, a bad case of it. In 1980, at the age of 22, Duchac says he started having more than a dozen grand mal seizures daily. Brain surgeries and excessive medication made Duchac’s life “a living hell,” he said.

But a relatively unknown procedure has given him his life back for the first time in decades.

A pacemaker-like machine, a Vagus Nerve Stimulator, was implanted just above Duchac’s heart in January. Since then, he’s been seizure-free for almost a year and is no longer taking a debilitating number of medications.

“I’m 60 years old and haven’t felt this good in decades,” he said.

Surgeries and side effects

In 1980, a chunk of Duchac’s brain’s right temporal lobe was surgically removed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The surgery worked — he didn’t have a seizure for 15 years — but he nearly died in the weeks that followed the surgery. He also suffered from severe memory loss, an expected side effect of having part of your brain taken out.

After the seizures resurfaced in 1995, another surgery removed parts of his parietal lobe and hippocampus. That kept the seizures at bay until 2006.

The reason the seizures kept coming back is because Duchac’s brain kept healing. His brain was able to re-establish lost connections, which helped his memory come back, but also allowed the seizures to return.

Despite the side effects, Duchac said that the surgeries were worth it.

“That was no way to live,” he said. “The pain from the muscles being tense all the time while you’re seizing, it has a devastating effect. And anybody having seizures knows that.”

Still, a third brain surgery would’ve had worse side effects and been even more dangerous. Doctors placed him on a gamut of medications. The drugs reduced the chances of seizures, but had side effects that seemed as devastating as losing parts of his brain.

“They would treat (the seizures) with medication and keep adding more (doses) as the body builds up a resistance to them, so you start having more seizures so they start pumping drugs in,” Duchac said.

“They get really sedated and they really can’t do much,” neurosurgeon Dr. Shekhar Dagam added.

In 2017, Duchac was taking seven different medications daily. They stopped working after awhile.

In January, Duchac says he legally died twice before being put into a medically induced coma at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee.

That’s when Dr. Dagam came into the picture.

Keeping watch

Dagam claims to have performed more vagus nerve stimulator surgeries than almost anyone else in the U.S., as many as 400 since 2003.

“The device is an electronic device and it’s implanted around the vagal nerve in the neck,” Dagam explained. “The brain is a big, giant computer. This small pulse of electricity, it seems to release certain transmitters (in the brain) and reduces the nerve irritability of the brain that would cause a seizure.”

The science that makes a VNS work isn’t fully understood, Dagam admitted. But what he, and Duchac, have learned is that it works.

“A lot of patients with epilepsy, their lives are devastated,” Dagam said. “When you have seizures, you have no control of your life … (a VNS) is able to tell the brain not to have a seizure, or at least reduce the risk.”

If a seizure somehow breaks through, a watchlike remote Duchac wears on his wrist at all times can be dragged across his chest, telling the device to send an extra jolt, stopping a seizure in its tracks. That watchlike device also records data that is shared with researchers, letting them know how Duchac’s brain is doing. It can also be used to turn off the VNS temporarily if Duchac has to get an MRI or go through airport security.

The side effects of a VNS are minimal. Every 5 minutes, when the device sends a bolt of electricity along his neck, Duchac says he feels a slight tingle but no pain. It’s also lowered his voice about an octave and can cause some coughing, but that’s about it.

The Swedish Department of Clinical Neuroscience reported that cognitive side effects, customary with epilepsy medications, haven’t been reported.

“The side effect profile of VNS is positive, and this treatment option offers patients with refractory epilepsy prospects of good efficacy with only minor and often resolvable side effects,” according to the Department of Clinical Neuroscience’s 2001 study.

“Some doctors are hesitant to use it. They don’t know that much about it,” Duchac said, mentioning that a doctor incorrectly told him he wasn’t eligible for the surgery a few years ago. “If this information gets out, it’s going to force doctors to look at it.”

Just as important as stopping the seizures, the VNS makes medications more effective, according to Dagam, which allows patients to take fewer drugs. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of patients experience improved seizure control, Dagam says. Coincidentally, a VNS can also alleviate symptoms of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but more research needs to be conducted before a VNS can be prescribed to treat mental illness.

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Feeling awake

Duchac talks, sitting underneath a tapestry of the Virgin Mary in his home. He speaks slowly and calmly, a man without troubles.

He mentioned that he’s playing guitar again, wants to write a book and is able to drive a car for the first time in years. Last year that wasn’t possible, a time when he was sleeping as much as 15 hours a day because of all the medications he was taking.

Now, he’s down to two daily medications and is hoping to get weaned off of those soon.

After watching their dad suffer for years, two of Duchac’s sons are in the medical field — one is currently in medical school in Illinois, the other is an emergency services technician in Milwaukee.

“It’s harder for them to witness (my seizures) than it is for me to go through it,” Duchac said. “My wife has been through the fire with me.”

“I had to go through hell before it came to this … it gave me hope again.”

GREGORY SHAVER, For The Journal Times 

Horlick's Nickkia Nelson steals the ball from Case's Ariyah Brooks as she is guarded by Horlick's Taylor Schmidt during the Eagles' 70-58 Southeast Conference win Friday at Horlick High School.

Sturtevant preps for future lodging with room tax ordinance

STURTEVANT — Before the Village of Sturtevant gets its first hotel or motel, it will likely have a room tax ordinance in place.

The Village Board had a first reading Tuesday of a new room tax ordinance that, like other local municipalities, would govern the collection and use of room taxes from any hotels or motels to come.

“Basically, we just wanted to be ahead of the game in case, someday, there is a hotel constructed,” Village President Jayme Hoffman explained. With Foxconn Technology Group building a $10 billion advanced-manufacturing campus in nearby Mount Pleasant, the likelihood of Sturtevant getting future lodging businesses seems to increase, he said.

The ordinance also puts in place a relationship with Real Racine, the county visitors bureau.

According to the ordinance still awaiting a second reading and Village Board approval, an 8 percent room tax would be imposed on “accommodations that are available to the public, irrespective of whether membership is required for the use of those accommodations.”

Of the collected taxes, 75 percent would go to a Tourism Commission also created by the ordinance. It specifies a six-person commission appointed by the village president with Village Board approval. That body would be comprised of:

  • Two representatives for the local lodging industry.
  • A Village Board member.
  • Two representatives for the tourism industry.
  • The village president or village administrator who will serve as commission chairman, or their designee.

Except for the latter, each member’s term will be for one year, but members may serve multiple terms.

The Tourism Commission would contract with Real Racine, which would spend the money on tourism promotion and development.

The 25 percent of room taxes collected that are not allocated to the visitors bureau would be retained in the village’s general fund.

Village Administrator Mary Cole said the room tax ordinance would apply to any AirBnBs or other vacation rentals in the village “but it’s very hard to enforce.” She said such operators should register with the village, but she is not aware of any that might exist within village limits.

The ordinance is scheduled to have its second reading and possible adoption at the Village Board meeting on Dec. 4.

“Basically, we just wanted to be ahead of the game in case someday there is a hotel constructed.” Jayme Hoffman, Sturtevant village president