P/sunny
67°
P/sunny
Hi 75° | Lo 54°

Portland Legalizes Pot, May Prompt Maine Law

Portland, Maine — Marijuana legalization advocates in Maine are aiming for a statewide law to legalize pot after voters in the state’s largest city convincingly approved a local legalization ordinance.

Portland voters passed a referendum 67-33 percent Tuesday making it legal to possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of pot. The decisive outcome should send a message that people are ready to end marijuana prohibition, said David Boyer, Maine’s political director for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.

“It is symbolic to the rest of the state and the rest of the country,” Boyer said.

Portland is the first place in the East to legalize pot, a year after Colorado and Washington did. The ordinance makes it legal for people 21 and over to possess marijuana, but not purchase, sell or use it in public.

Practically speaking, the law will have little effect in Portland.

Police will continue to enforce state law, which makes pot possession of up to 2 1/2 ounces a civil offense punishable by a fine, said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. Pot is already a low priority for police, who issued only 54 citations for pot possession between July 2012 and July 2013, he said.

Beyond Portland, the lopsidedness of the vote will grab the attention of lawmakers, said state Rep. Mark Dion of Portland, a former county sheriff who’s now a lawyer.

Dion voted against the ordinance because it conflicts with state and federal laws. He also voted against a bill in the House of Representatives this year seeking to legalize and regulate pot because he wanted to see how Colorado and Washington were going to regulate it.

Even Dion said legalization is inevitable, but he wants residents to vote on the matter and lawmakers to craft the law detailing how it should be regulated.

“Should states establish sensible drug policy? I would say yes,” Dion said. “How that’s accomplished will take some work beyond simply saying, ‘Let’s make it legal.’ ”

Boyer is hopeful the Legislature will pass a law next year to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. If that doesn’t happen, he envisions a statewide referendum in 2016 asking voters to decide.

State Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, who introduced a legalization bill that failed by four votes in the House last spring, wants legislators to work out the details of a state law early next year and then have Mainers decide the question in a statewide vote as soon as next November.

“I don’t think it’s going to take as long as people think,” she said.

There’s growing momentum to legalize pot, with 58 percent of respondents in a nationwide Gallup poll last month saying they think it should be legal, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The results of the Portland vote make it evident there’s lots of support in Maine, he said.

“Looking forward, Maine is at the vanguard,” he said. “Of all the 50 states, there are three or four that are at the vanguard of reform. Two, clearly, have (committed themselves to reform), with Colorado and Washington. But I hold Maine out in that same top tier.”

Portland was the birthplace of alcohol prohibition, but now it’s the first place in the East to abolish marijuana possession laws, said David Marshall, a Portland city councilor and member of the Maine Green Independent Party, which spearheaded the signature drive to get the legalization question on the Portland ballot.

Back in 1851, Portland Mayor Neal Dow pushed a law through the Legislature that made Maine the first state to outlaw alcohol sales. Dow became a leader in the national temperance movement and ran for president on the Prohibition Party ticket in 1880.

“Portland plays an important role in history involving the prohibition of both alcohol and marijuana,” Marshall said. “I’m excited Portland’s on the books for ending the prohibition against marijuana.”