Voters in Portland could decide Tuesday to make Maine’s largest city the only community in the state to legalize the possession and use of marijuana. If they vote “yes,” they could be voting for a change with limited practical impact but, potentially, a significant political impact.
As Portland voters make their decisions, they should understand what their vote will and will not do.
Question 1 on Tuesday’s ballot proposes an ordinance that would allow adults 21 and older to have up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and paraphernalia in their possession without facing penalties, civil or criminal. The ordinance, if approved, would allow people to use marijuana, but not in public places. Property owners, including landlords, would be able prohibit marijuana use on their properties.
What the ordinance wouldn’t do is set up a structure to regulate and tax the cultivation and sale of marijuana. That can’t be done at the municipal level, so those functions would remain on the black market or under the state’s regulatory structure for medical marijuana. But the ordinance includes a resolution of support for marijuana’s taxation and regulation at the state and federal levels.
As the city contemplates the marijuana ordinance, voters should realize the Portland Police Department has discretion in the matter. The department could choose, as a matter of policy, to enforce the ordinance or disregard it in favor of enforcing a state law that’s in clear conflict. Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuk told The Associated Press last month his department plans to enforce state law but that enforcing marijuana possession laws is already a low priority for the agency.
Advocates for the Portland ballot measure have pointed to Colorado as a legalization model. In the Centennial State, legalization came first in Denver, where voters approved a legalization ordinance in 2005. Voters in two other Colorado cities, Breckenridge and Nederland, later followed suit before voters last year enacted a statewide initiative to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.
After the Denver vote, police in the city deferred to state law, and police actually made more misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession. Two years later, Denver voters approved a measure making small-time marijuana possession the lowest enforcement priority for their Police Department.
The legalization vote wouldn’t play out the same way in Portland. The state law police would defer to is decidedly more lenient in Maine than it was in Colorado. Maine law already considers marijuana possession a civil — not a criminal — offense; it subjects offenders with 2.5 ounces or less of the drug to a fine of up to $1,000 depending on the amount and no jail time.
The advocates for the Portland ballot measure haven’t hidden their intent to parlay success in Portland into success statewide either through another try at legislation or through a citizens’ initiative that brings a measure to a statewide referendum vote.
That statewide debate is inevitable. Momentum for marijuana legalization is growing. A Gallup poll released Oct. 22 found 58 percent of American adults favor it, the first time a clear majority has supported legalization.
In Maine, advocates hope a positive vote in Portland will build more momentum across the state. Legislation that would have sent a ballot question on legalization to voters failed by just four votes in the Maine House earlier this year.
As Maine approaches the statewide legalization debate, it should watch closely to see what happens in Colorado and Washington, the two states where voters legalized marijuana last year. The states are taking different approaches to marijuana’s taxation and regulation, and policymakers in Maine should pay attention to which model is most successful in keeping the drug from those younger than 21 and preventing the flow of marijuana over the border to states where it’s illegal.
The stakes are significant in those states, especially in terms of how legalization affects crime, the price of marijuana on the black market and how easily it falls into the hands of adolescents. Maine stands to gain more right now from not being the leader on this issue.