Politics & Other Mistakes: Constitutionally inedible

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Amending the state Constitution is like pumping out the septic tank. Sometimes, it has to be done, but the less often, the better.

Since Maine became a state in 1820, it has amended its Constitution roughly one zillion times. OK, slight exaggeration. It’s only 174 times, and most of these changes have been housekeeping measures because the original language was unclear, outdated, or stupid.

My septic tank has been pumped out far less often, but it still works fine. There may be a lesson there, but if so, the Legislature seems to have missed it.

By overwhelming margins, the state House and Senate recently approved what could become Amendment 175, a “Right to Food.” Its purpose is, well, it’s kinda hard to figure out. If you read the amendment, it doesn’t seem to have any purpose beyond restating what everybody already does, anyway. See for yourself:

“All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the harvesting, production or acquisition of food.”

In other words, you can eat whatever you want so long as you don’t break any laws – which is currently the case. Nobody is trying to stop you from growing tomatoes or buying bananas or making a kale smoothie. Although there probably should be a law against that last one.

Supporters of this amendment – an odd mixture from across the political spectrum – have a difficult time explaining why it’s needed. The sponsor of the resolution, Republican state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor, claims it will protect us from unspecified restrictions that might be imposed by authoritarian figures at some future date (all citizens found in possession of Fruity Pebbles will be arrested and imprisoned without trial until they admit to having abominable taste in breakfast cereal).

Other backers are equally vague. Heather Spalding of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association told the Bangor Daily News the amendment would give her members legal standing if they were ever threatened by government intrusion. “It’s really hard to say exactly what kind of scenario may crop up in the future that the courts would have to assess,” Spalding said, “but we don’t have (standing) now and we feel we should.”

Some of the momentum for this amendment came from the food sovereignty movement, which advocates for cities and towns to exempt small, local farmers who sell directly to consumers from many state regulations on products such as raw milk, unpasteurized cheese, and kale jellies and jams. Nearly 90 Maine municipalities have such ordinances, and even though kale jelly is disgusting, there haven’t been any reports of health problems associated with such measures.

It is, however, one thing to make a minor change to the rules governing a small town and quite another to amend the Constitution. If shifting the local law doesn’t work out as expected, it’s a relatively simple matter to make whatever alterations are needed to fix the problem. But once the Constitution is amended, it’s an arduous process to repair it (see, for instance, Prohibition).

For that reason alone, Maine voters should be wary of approving this amendment. Add in the fuzzy language, the lack of a clearly defined problem that can somehow only be solved by altering our fundamental state law, and the possibility that a few of the advocates for this measure have a hidden agenda or two and you have an abundant harvest of unanswered questions sufficient to justify a “no” vote in November.

If we’re going to further clutter up our Constitution with special-interest amendments, then a “Right to Beer” ought to come ahead of this one, not to mention a “Right to Sleep Late” and a “Right to Only Have the Septic System Pumped Out When I Damn Well Feel Like It.”

If something smells funny to you, email me at [email protected].