June 24, 2018
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Portland voters may make history with recreational pot referendum this fall

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Statewide voters won’t get a chance to weigh in on whether recreational pot use should be legal this fall, but Portland voters just might.

A group seeking to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Maine’s largest city announced Tuesday that it has enough signatures to get the issue on Portland’s November ballot.

The Portland Green Independent Committee, which worked alongside the national Marijuana Policy Project, ACLU of Maine and the Libertarian Party of Maine to circulate the petitions, announced that the city clerk’s office certified 2,508 of the more than 3,200 signatures the groups had collected.

The coalition needed about 1,500 signatures from registered Portland voters in order to push the legalization issue to a citywide vote.

Conversely, a bill that would have legalized recreational use of marijuana statewide, proposed by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, attracted 35 cosponsors but did not gain the endorsement of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. The House and Senate subsequently voted down a follow-up proposal that would have put the legalization issue before voters on statewide ballots in the fall.

“Portland voters will get the chance to make history this November through adopting this ordinance,” said Tom MacMillan, chair of the Portland Green Independent Committee, in a statement. “The Maine Legislature failed again this year to end marijuana prohibition, and this ordinance begins that process. The Green Independent Party did not expect the Legislature to be able to reform our marijuana laws, so we did the hard work of collecting thousands of signatures to put this to a citywide vote.”

The legalization ordinance proposed by the coalition 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.

The Portland City Council is now required to set a date within 30 days for a public hearing on the proposed ordinance. The council must then decide whether to adopt the ordinance as requested in the petition or send it to the polls for a citywide vote, according to MacMillan.

The Greens expect the issue to be placed on the November ballot, the group announced Tuesday.

Proponents of the legalization measure, including City Councilor David Marshall, have said the prohibition of the drug is ineffective, drives use of the substance underground and unnecessarily ties up law enforcement resources. They say pot use should be allowed, regulated and taxed the same way as alcohol, which was prohibited in the 1920s in what is largely looked back on as a failed initiative.

Opponents of the move, including the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, argue that the step would exacerbate substance abuse problems that feed other crimes, and that overseeing regulation and distribution of pot would be an expensive and time-consuming task for overburdened state agencies.

Efforts to defang enforcement of marijuana laws in Portland in the past have fallen short. In 2011, activists gathered signatures on a petition seeking to make pot possession offenses the lowest enforcement priority for Portland police. But despite getting more than 2,100 signatures on the petition — 600 more than necessary to get a spot on the local ballot — the city clerk’s office found the document was invalid because only about 1,400 of the names were from verified Portland residents.

In 2005, voters in Denver passed a law making it legal to possess a small amount of marijuana. It the first major U.S. city to do so. In 2012, Colorado joined Washington as the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use.

Maine is one of 18 states in which marijuana can be legally used for medical reasons, prescribed to patients to fight chronic pain, among other ailments.

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