AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters could face competing pot ballot measures in 2016, both seeking to make recreational marijuana legal.
But the split between a national legalization advocacy group and a homegrown Maine organization also could divide support for marijuana reforms that most polls suggest a majority of the state’s voters would favor.
Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, announced Wednesday a petition signature drive that would ask voters statewide to approve his group’s legalization plan.
Also likely to be collecting signatures for 2016 is the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that has helped push legalization in other states, including Colorado and Washington.
“We attempted to work together. Unfortunately there were irreconcilable differences between both our vision and with what they were putting forward,” McCarrier said of the Marijuana Policy Project. “We do not believe that this local marijuana industry should be a giveaway to big liquor and big tobacco.”
Each group will need to collect more than 60,000 signatures from registered Maine voters to place a question on the ballot.
McCarrier said his organization aims to make Maine “the weed basket for New England.”
A handful of state lawmakers in recent years offered bills to put the issue before voters. In 2013, legislation sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, narrowly missed passage in the Maine House on a vote of 67-71.
Russell again will offer a bill this session that would craft state policy around legalizing and taxing marijuana, then would seek to have voters ratify that policy at the ballot box in 2016.
Russell said the idea of competing ballot measures offered by two separate groups should prompt lawmakers to act this year.
“This is the last session the Legislature can get ahead of this issue,” Russell said. “If we pass this this session, then why would people collect signatures if the Legislature has already done it?”
Russell said fears that lobbyists for large alcohol and tobacco interests will have an undue influence on any Maine law are unfounded.
“No matter which way it gets done, changes will be made to the law eventually, and lobbyists will probably have some influence on that,” Russell said. “The more that lawmakers can work with advocates to set a solid law and leave the question of whether to legalize or not up to the people, the better the chance that that policy framework will stay secure.”
David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he was surprised McCarrier’s group was going it alone.
Boyer’s group was a driving force behind legalization efforts for recreational marijuana in Portland in 2013 and South Portland and Lewiston in 2014. South Portland approved an ordinance change; voters in Lewiston rejected it, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Boyer said that until last week he was under the impression the groups would work together, but apparently McCarrier’s group decided to do its own petition drive.
“We were in talks about working together, and it seemed to be making real headway before they unexpectedly decided to go their own way,” Boyer said.
The legislation Legalize Maine is promoting does not include any authorization for blood testing to determine whether a driver is impaired by marijuana use. It’s a provision that has helped sell legalization to voters in other states, including Washington and Colorado.
McCarrier said the science was not sound enough yet to support those provisions. Boyer said his organization believes law enforcement should have some additional methods to test for impairment but did not elaborate.
“We are open to it,” Boyer said. “We listen to the state troopers, and they have a need for a more viable testing method, so we are definitely open to that.”
Boyer said his group would wait to see what — if any — marijuana legalization measure emerges from the Legislature before deciding whether to collect signatures for a referendum.
“If it’s what we consider a good bill that effectively ends marijuana prohibition in Maine and regulates and taxes it like alcohol and legalizes marijuana use for adults over 21 including home cultivation, we would likely support that,” Boyer said.
If Maine lawmakers went that route, it would be “a big win for the legalization movement because it would be the first time a state legislature has decided to do that,” Boyer said.
Opponents to legalization, including much of Maine’s education and law enforcement community, have said it will increase illegal use of the drug by teens and will bring additional drug crime to the state.
Supporters have said jobs and tax revenue created by legalized marijuana will be a boon for the state’s budget and economy.
Scott Gagnon, volunteer coordinator for Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, has said the close vote in South Portland and the rejection of a legalization ordinance in Lewiston in 2014 shows Maine voters are not fully sold on legalized recreational marijuana.
Gagnon said Wednesday that advocates for legal marijuana tout the economic benefits but said a true, “cost-benefit analysis” that considers the societal costs of legalization has not been done.
Unaccounted costs likely would include increased emergency room visits by those who overdose on edible marijuana products, as has been the case in Colorado, he said. Gagnon also said legalization would send a message to young people that marijuana is safe to use, despite the fact that most research doesn’t bear that out. He compared attitudes espoused by marijuana legalization advocates to arguments made on behalf of tobacco use in the 1950s.
“If we knew then what we know now about the dangers of tobacco use, I suspect we would have made some very different policy decisions back then,” Gagnon said.