Portland police chief, Maine attorney general say Portland pot legalization vote won’t change enforcement strategies

Green Party activist John Eder smokes a joint at the &quotYes on 1" headquarters in Portland Tuesday night after declaring victory in a referendum to legalize recreational use of marijuana in the city.
Green Party activist John Eder smokes a joint at the "Yes on 1" headquarters in Portland Tuesday night after declaring victory in a referendum to legalize recreational use of marijuana in the city. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 06, 2013, at 10:26 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 06, 2013, at 5:28 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said people celebrating the city’s groundbreaking marijuana legalization effort presented no trouble for his officers. But he said police will continue to issue citations for possession of the drug under state law when necessary.

“We didn’t have any problems at all,” Sauschuck told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday morning.

The chief reiterated comments he made before the passage of the referendum, which legalizes possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in Portland. Recreational use of the drug remains illegal under federal and state laws, which Sauschuck said “pre-empt local ordinances.”

But he said police in Maine’s largest city did not consider small-scale marijuana possession a high priority even before Tuesday night’s election. The ordinance takes effect in 30 days.

“This doesn’t change anything for us in terms of enforcement,” he said. “But the actual statistics show this is a low priority for us.”

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on Wednesday reinforced Sauschuck’s position that state law takes precedence over a local ordinance in determining enforcement strategy.

“While the people of Portland are free to express their views on marijuana or other topics of social importance, the marijuana ordinance of course does not override state or federal laws regulating the use, possession, furnishing and sale of marijuana,” Mills said in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “In this regard, we view the referendum as somewhat advisory in nature.”

Possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana is not a criminal offense in Maine, but rather a civil offense, effectively meaning that instead of any jail time, those convicted face court dates and fines.

Sauschuck said his department responds to 85,000 calls for service per year, and handed out 68 civil summonses for marijuana charges between June 2011 and June 2012. The following 12-month period, from June 2012 to June 2013, Portland police issued just 54 such citations.

Under Sauschuck, the Portland Police Department has a track record of flexibility when dealing with controversial issues. The police have agreed not to enforce a recently approved — and hotly contested — ordinance prohibiting panhandling or other demonstrations in city median strips until a First Amendment lawsuit over the new rule plays out.

During a late-night event in September protesting the proposed sale of the publicly owned Congress Square Park to private hotel developers, the chief allowed demonstrators to stay long past a standing 10 p.m. park closure time on the books in order to allow them to get their message across.

Similarly, when it comes to enforcement of marijuana laws under the new local ordinance, Sauschuck said Wednesday, “Officers will use their discretion.”

The chief said that, even with news photographs depicting revelers smoking large marijuana joints being circulated online, police have no plans to issue citations based on that incriminating evidence.

“Let’s think about resource allocation,” Sauschuck said. “We’re not going to go after these guys for smoking a joint [in a picture].”

While the referendum may not have much functional effect in Portland, supporters have celebrated the legalization as importantly symbolic.

Portland becomes the first city on the East Coast to even nominally legalize pot, and is a new rallying place for marijuana advocates nationwide after successful and high-profile legalization efforts in Washington state and Colorado. Proponents of legalization hope to build upon Tuesday’s vote to generate momentum for a statewide referendum in 2016, timed to coincide with the next presidential election.

David Boyer, Maine political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, has said he hopes Portland will play a similar role here as Denver did in Colorado. The passage of a local measure legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Colorado’s largest city in 2005 was seen as a harbinger of the statewide legalization last year.

However, Project SAM, or Smart Approaches to Marijuana, announced Wednesday that it would launch an educational campaign in Maine to inform the public of the dangers associated with marijuana use. Scott Gagnon, a veteran substance abuse prevention worker, will lead the Maine campaign.

“Maine is on the brink of creating a massive marijuana industry that will inevitably target teens and other vulnerable populations. Misconceptions about marijuana are becoming more and more prevalent,” said former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Project SAM’s national chairman, in a prepared statement. “It’s time to clear the smoke and get the facts out about this drug.”

Gagnon added that the effort is not about “demonizing or legalizing marijuana, but rather educating the public about the most misunderstood drug in the state.”

Criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana were eliminated in Maine in 1976. Medical use of marijuana was legalized in Maine in 1999, and larger-scale dispensaries of medical cannabis were newly allowed in 2009.

The Portland ordinance change, which still would prohibit use of marijuana in public, was put on the ballot through the citizens initiative process. A coalition of organizations — Portland Green Independent Committee, Marijuana Policy Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Libertarian Party of Maine — collected nearly twice the 1,500 petition signatures necessary to force the referendum.

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