Pot legalization advocates get enough signatures to qualify for South Portland ballot

Marijuana Policy Project holds a press conference before advocates turn in 1,521 signatures seeking a legalization referendum at City Hall in South Portland on Monday.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Marijuana Policy Project holds a press conference before advocates turn in 1,521 signatures seeking a legalization referendum at City Hall in South Portland on Monday. Buy Photo
Posted July 23, 2014, at 3:25 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Seven business days after holding a news conference to turn in their petitions, marijuana legalization advocates announced on Wednesday they officially have enough signatures to qualify for a spot on the South Portland ballot.

“Voters were very receptive during the signature drive,” said David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement. “Most people agree law enforcement officials have more important things to do than punish adults for using a substance that is less harmful than alcohol. If this measure passes [at the polls], police can use their discretion to stop arresting adults for simple marijuana possession.”

The South Portland city clerk’s office had 20 days to certify that at least 959 of the names on the petitions were valid and from registered city voters.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the national organization which led the legalization campaign in nearby Portland last fall, announced it received that confirmation from the city on Wednesday. The group and its supporters turned in 1,521 signatures on July 14.

In addition to backing a referendum to legalize possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana in Maine’s largest city last November — which passed with the support of two-thirds of the Portlanders who voted — the Marijuana Policy Project is now seeking to get similar measures before voters in South Portland, Lewiston and York.

Unlike in the Portland ordinance, however, the proposed rules in the other three municipalities would legalize possession of only one ounce.

The organization already has turned in signatures in York, where a public hearing will take place on Monday before selectmen there consider placing legalization on the November ballot.

Boyer has told reporters that his group has gathered about half of the 859 signatures necessary in Lewiston, and petitioners there have until early August to finish gathering signatures.

“We hope to see as much support and enthusiasm among City Council members as we have among voters,” Boyer said of the South Portland effort. “This is an opportunity for council members to demonstrate leadership on this issue. It’s time to move beyond the status quo of prohibition and start making progress.”

So far, South Portland officials have offered more vocal resistance to the prospect of marijuana legalization than Boyer and his supporters faced in neighboring Portland.

Last month, the South Portland City Council unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution opposing legalization. That action came on the heels of a news conference at which Mayor Jerry Jalbert, Police Chief Ed Googins, Superintendent Suzanne Godin and two city councilors — among others — proclaimed their opposition.

With the exception of a few city councilors who were outspoken in favor of legalization, most Portland officials stayed on the sidelines during the marijuana campaign there last fall, largely allowing the pro-legalization group control of the airwaves.

Boyer has been clear that his group is seeking the municipal-level legalization measures as a precursor to a 2016 effort to legalize recreational marijuana use statewide.

As is the case in Portland, the marijuana ordinances petitioners are proposing in the other three communities would apply to adults over the age of 21 and would maintain prohibitions on public use or display of the drug.

Portland police and state prosecutors have maintained that, despite the local ordinance legalizing pot in that city, they are still obligated to enforce state and federal laws outlawing the drug, leaving the referendum vote there largely as a ceremonial or advisory one.

Use of marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in Maine since 1999, with larger scale dispensaries of medical marijuana legal since 2009. The measure in Portland, as well as those proposed in the other three municipalities, would nominally legalize possession and use of the drug recreationally.

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