YORK, Maine — A divided York board of selectmen Monday night refused to place an ordinance that would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana on the town’s November ballot.
The selectmen’s decision against putting the measure to a town-wide vote represents the first significant setback in an ongoing, statewide effort by the Marijuana Policy Project to ultimately legalize pot.
The organization and its supporters successfully campaigned for a legalization ordinance in the state’s largest city of Portland last fall and claimed summertime victories by gathering enough petition signatures to place similar ordinances on the York and South Portland ballots.
But at the Monday night meeting, Chairwoman Mary Andrews joined fellow York selectmen Jonathan Speers and Robert Palmer Jr. in voting against placing the legalization on the town’s November ballot, despite the number of signatures collected.
Speers said the town charter only requires the selectmen to honor petitions seeking enactment of “any lawful ordinance” and argued the pot proposal doesn’t qualify because recreational marijuana use remains against state and federal laws.
“You are asking me to break a law when I swore to uphold all state, federal and local laws,” Andrews said.
Selectmen Robert Nowell and Torbert MacDonald voted to place the ordinance on the ballot in what was a 3-2 vote against the move.
The Marijuana Policy Project, which gathered the requisite 100 signatures to bring the proposal to the selectmen, reportedly can override the selectmen’s refusal and put the ordinance on the ballot without their approval by collecting 631 signatures.
David Boyer, Maine political director of the organization, said Monday night his group will likely pursue the additional signatures necessary.
“I have no doubt in my mind that this group can go out at this time of year in this town and get  signatures,” Nowell said. “What do you fear from the voters? Is there some fear that the voters are going to put this in? If they do, that means they support it. If they don’t, that means they don’t support it. I wasn’t elected up here to be judge, jury and executioner.”
York is one of three Maine communities where the national Marijuana Policy Project and its supporters are seeking to place legalization measures on the upcoming November ballots.
The organization already has gathered the 959 signatures necessary to qualify for the South Portland ballot and has until early next month to finish gathering the 859 names to secure a place on the Lewiston ballot.
The Marijuana Policy Project also was one of the primary groups behind the successful campaign to pass an ordinance legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Portland last November.
Boyer has been clear 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.
Unlike in Portland, however, where the ordinance legalized possession of 2.5 ounces of pot, the petition drives in York, South Portland and Lewiston are seeking to legalize possession of one ounce.
Portland police and state prosecutors have maintained that, despite the local ordinance legalizing pot in Portland, 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.
In York on Monday night, many members of the public who spoke argued passionately against the legalization measure.
York Police Chief Douglas Bracy was among several people to argue legalizing marijuana would make the drug more accessible to young people and others who have addiction problems.
“It’s a huge problem in our society,” Bracy told the selectmen. “Every one of us knows someone who has been impacted by this. I have good friends and relatives who have been through rehab.”
Scott Gagnon, state coordinator for Project SAM, which stands for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said one-third of all Maine high school students have tried marijuana at least once, and the effort to legalize it will reinforce the notion the drug is normal and not harmful.
“Marijuana is not a safe substance,” he told the selectmen. “The average THC level in marijuana — the chemical that gets users high and causes addiction — has more than doubled since 1998.”
But the few proponents of legalization in attendance argued the drug remains less harmful than alcohol, which is legal, and said Monday night’s turnout was not representative of how all the voters in town feel about the subject.
“I collected 208 signatures, and I could honestly say it was 10-to-1 [in favor of legalization],” local resident Sherry Dabiere said. “These were store owners and professional people. There are a lot of people who smoke and you don’t know it. Let the whole town decide it, not just a room full of people who are against it.”