LEWISTON, Maine — Lewiston voters will likely decide in November if they want to join Portland in sending a message to lawmakers in Augusta and Washington that marijuana should be made legal for adult recreational use.
On Friday, advocates from the Maine Marijuana Policy Project met their deadline for turning in 859 signatures from registered Lewiston voters, requiring the City Council to pass an ordinance change or place a question on the November ballot.
David Boyer, the political director for the Maine Marijuana Policy Project, said his group has collected more than 1,250 signatures. City election officials are in the process of verifying that the signatures are from Lewiston voters, and once that process is complete, the question will be added to the ballot.
The ordinance change would allow adults older than 21 to possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana. Selling and distributing marijuana would still be a criminal offense.
Boyer likens the prohibition on marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933.
“Alcohol prohibition was a complete failure,” Boyer said. “All it did was criminalize millions of Americans and gave Al Capone and his violent bootleggers a job, and it did nothing to stop the flow of alcohol just like marijuana prohibition has done nothing to stop the flow of marijuana into our communities.”
Boyer said legalized marijuana would force drug dealers out of business and replace it with a regulated industry that would require licensing and quality standards making marijuana use safe. He also argues that the legal use and abuse of alcohol is far more dangerous to society than the legal use of marijuana would be.
“We shouldn’t go back to the days of alcohol in a Mason jar with three x’s on it, and we don’t know anything else other than that,” Boyer said. “It’s illogical. So people who choose to use alcohol can choose between whether they want one Michelob or a stronger substance like whiskey.”
Joining with Boyer on Friday was Lewiston City Councilor Leslie Dubois, who said she believes the question should be settled by voters. Dubois also is a candidate for the Legislature, running as a Republican for the city’s open House District 60 seat against Democrat Jared Golden.
Dubois said she doesn’t personally use marijuana but believes if medical marijuana is safe to use, recreational marijuana would be equally safe.
“It’s not my decision to make, it is the Lewiston voters’ decision,” Dubois said.
She said if Lewiston made recreational marijuana legal it wouldn’t damage the city’s image. She also said that “the police have better fish to fry than trying to go after the one-ounce marijuana smokers in their own homes.”
If approved by voters, the change would mostly be symbolic as state and federal laws making marijuana a controlled and illegal drug would still supersede the ordinance, law enforcement officials have said.
Voters in Lewiston, South Portland and perhaps York will see similar questions after a 2013 vote in Portland that made possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana legal for adults over 21. Portland voters overwhelmingly approved the measure with 67 percent voting in favor.
The vote mirrors national polls that suggest more Americans are supportive of a federal law change that would make marijuana legal for adults to use.
A Gallup Poll released in October of 2013 suggested for the first time that a majority — or 58 percent — of Americans believed marijuana should be made legal.
Boyer said he hopes, if legal marijuana is approved by voters in the state’s two largest cities, lawmakers will move ahead with legislation in 2015 to legalize and regulate marijuana.
Still, he said, the Marijuana Policy Initiative was moving forward with its plans to push for a statewide ballot initiative in 2016, in case lawmakers reject legalization.
Boyer said that at a minimum, lawmakers in those cities would have to recognize the will of the voters they represent.
In 2013, the Maine House of Representatives came within four votes of passing a bill that would have sent a question to voters statewide, while allowing the Legislature to write the legalization law, were the ballot measure to pass.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational marijuana.
Maine is among dozens of states that have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and also is one of more than 20 states that have made marijuana for medical uses legal.
Opposing the Lewiston ballot question is another citizens group calling itself Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Scott Gagnon, a spokesman for the group and a local substance abuse counselor, said making recreational marijuana legal sends the wrong message to children that marijuana is safe.
Gagnon also has noted that teen use of marijuana has ticked back up in Androscoggin County after legal changes that made medical marijuana more accessible. He said admitted marijuana use by middle school children in Androscoggin County has increased by 50 percent in recent years.
“We are full in to oppose this,” Gagnon said. He also noted the move for Lewiston voters was fiscally unsound as it would contribute to an increase in substance abuse problems.
“Lewiston taxpayers share in the over $1.3 billion annual costs related to substance abuse in Maine,” Gagnon said. “A cost that continues to escalate.”