Despite Portland’s vote, Maine’s top candidates for governor remain leery about pot legalization

Writer Crash Barry (left) and Frank Rizzo of Bethel light up a joint at the &quotYes on 1" headquarters in Portland on Tuesday night after declaring victory in a referendum to legalize recreational use of marijuana in the city.
Troy R. Bennett
Writer Crash Barry (left) and Frank Rizzo of Bethel light up a joint at the "Yes on 1" headquarters in Portland on Tuesday night after declaring victory in a referendum to legalize recreational use of marijuana in the city. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 07, 2013, at 2:25 p.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — The leading candidates for governor in Maine danced around the subject of whether the state should follow the city of Portland’s lead and legalize recreational marijuana statewide.

On Tuesday, Portland voters overwhelmingly approved a city ordinance that makes possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal use legal. The change, however, may be largely symbolic as both state and federal laws making possession illegal would supersede the ordinance, according to law enforcement.

The group that pushed the ordinance has indicated it plans to pursue a statewide referendum vote in 2016 to legalize recreational use.

A spokeswoman for the Democrat in the gubernatorial race, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said he would want to see more details of any bill that would legalize or further decriminalize marijuana in Maine.

“But he is concerned that such efforts could make the drug more accessible to children and teens,” Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said in a prepared statement. “The congressman is willing to sit down to discuss the issue with advocates for the law change and with representatives from the public health and law enforcement communities.”

Eliot Cutler, the independent in the race, said he had similar concerns that legalizing marijuana for adults would also expand access to the drug for children and adolescents.

“I think my biggest concern with legalizing marijuana is that it could send a message to our kids that drug use is OK,” Cutler said.

Still, Cutler said he believed the current prohibition on marijuana wasn’t working.

“It has permitted the development of a thriving, unregulated and untaxed black market in nonmedicinal marijuana that is easily accessed by children and adolescents, as well as adults,” Cutler said.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Paul LePage demurred on the questions. His campaign staff referred the issue to the governor’s communications staff in Augusta.

“Gov. LePage has taken an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution and observe the laws of the state of Maine and he intends to do just that,” Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, wrote in an emailed message.

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said Tuesday’s vote was a clear mandate that Mainers were ready for a change.

Earlier this year a bill sponsored by Russell that would have sent the question of legalization to Maine voters was defeated in the House of Representatives by just four votes.

Russell said she is introducing another bill for 2014 that would also ask voters to approve legalization, but one that includes provisions to create a youth prevention task force.

Russell’s latest proposal would allow the Legislature to set the laws around legalization as well as a structure for regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana for recreational use.

Russell was heartened to see the leading candidates for governor were keeping open minds about the issue, she said.

“If people have an open mind and start seeing the evidence I think we can make a pretty good case for why legalization makes sense,” Russell said.

Still, she said the idea that minors will gain greater access to marijuana if it were made legal isn’t sustained by the facts.

“Under prohibition, more than 80 percent of high school seniors nationwide say they have easy access to marijuana,” Russell said. “In Maine alone, 36 percent of high school students say they have tried marijuana at least once. If this is an example of how prohibition is succeeding in protecting our children, I’d really hate to see it fail.”

Of the three leading candidates, only one, Cutler, said they had ever used marijuana.

Michaud has never smoked or used marijuana, according to Reinholt, who said the campaign has had numerous conversations around the topic following the Portland vote Tuesday.

“But no, Mike has never smoked pot,” Reinholt said.

Cutler said he smoked pot two or three times but it was “many years ago.”

Bennett said she had not yet had an opportunity to ask LePage if he had ever smoked or otherwise used marijuana.

Russell said she doesn’t use marijuana but is involved in the effort for legalization because prohibition has been a failed policy.

“Actually, I’m more of a bourbon girl myself,” Russell said Thursday.

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