PORTLAND, Maine – A push to legalize recreational marijuana in Maine’s largest city appears poised to go before Portland voters this fall.
A coalition of political groups and activists who want make possession of the drug legal for adults turned in a petition Thursday with more than 3,200 signatures, twice the 1,500 signatures needed to place the measure on the November ballot.
Led by the Portland Green Independent Committee, the coalition submitted the petition to city officials, paving the way for voters to weigh in on the citizen initiative this fall. The city has 15 days to review the signatures and certify the petition.
The coalition, called Citizens for a Safer Portland, argue that pot should be legalized in Portland because the drug is safer than tobacco and alcohol. Decriminalizing marijuana also would free up law enforcement to pursue more serious crimes, the groups said.
“The residents of Maine’s largest city strongly support the end of marijuana prohibition for adults, just as alcohol prohibition ended decades ago,” Tom MacMillan, chair of the Portland Green Independent Committee, said Thursday at a city hall press event announcing the signature collection.
The proposed ordinance would allow adults aged 21 and over to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana with city limits, while prohibiting recreational use of the drug in public spaces, including school grounds and on public transportation.
Portland police haven’t taken a public stance on the legalization effort.
The coalition also included the ACLU of Maine, the Libertarian Party of Maine, and the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for marijuana policy reform.
In 2005, Denver became the first major U.S. city to legalize recreational marijuana.
Maine is one of 18 states where marijuana can be legally used for medical reasons. If Portland voters approve the ordinance in November, the city would still buck current state law that prohibits marijuana possession for recreational use. The state law allowing medical marijuana itself runs in conflict with federal law, which bans all use of the drug.
David Marshall, a Portland city councilor who supports the ordinance, said fears about legalization fueling greater marijuana use among teens are unfounded. Rates of teen marijuana use in Maine have dropped since 1999, when Maine legalized medical marijuana, and have continued to wane since the state expanded the law in 2009, he said.
“Marijuana is safer than alcohol, marijuana is safer than tobacco,” Marshall said. “We have hundreds of thousands of people in America dying every year from alcohol-related illnesses or tobacco-related illnesses. You do not see the same thing with marijuana.”
Legalizing pot would make it more difficult for teens to get their hands on the drug by subjecting marijuana purchases to the same kind of identification checks required when buying alcohol, MacMillan said.
The move to legalize pot in Portland coincided with the introduction of a bill in the state Legislature by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, that would legalize, regulate and tax pot possession across Maine. That bill failed in committee on May 14 by vote of 8-3.
The proposed Portland ordinance doesn’t address how adults would buy marijuana legally. MacMillan said the Portland City Council would likely sort out distribution issues if voters pass the ordinance.
Past efforts to weaken enforcement of marijuana laws in Portland have fallen short. In 2011, activists gathered signatures on a petition seeking to make pot possession offenses the lowest enforcement priority for Portland police. Proponents gathered more than 2,100 signatures, but the city clerk’s office found the document was invalid because only about 1,400 of the names were from verified Portland residents.