PORTLAND — Enforcement of marijuana laws will be the lowest priority for Portland police, if supporters of a petition drive get their way.

Under the proposal being circulated by a group called Sensible Portland, police would refrain from arresting or fining anyone 21 or older for possession of marijuana or paraphernalia. Police also would be directed to refrain from working to determine whether someone has pot or paraphernalia.

John Eder, a spokesman and organizer for Sensible Portland, said the proposed ordinance is in line with the values of a community that has supported Maine’s medical marijuana laws.

The eagerness of petition signers and other anecdotal evidence indicate that Portland residents don’t want police to expend resources pursuing people with small amounts of marijuana, he said.

“We want law enforcement in Portland to be working with the same level of values as the people in Portland,” said Eder, a former state lawmaker from the Green Independent Party.

Sensible Maine has until Aug. 15 to gather the 1,500 valid signatures needed to get the measure on the November ballot. The group says it now has 1,000 signatures.

Seattle, Denver, Missoula, Mont., and a number of cities in California have similar measures.

Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said ordinances are being adopted in urban areas that are far more progressive than in the rest of the states. Local law enforcement and prosecutors may have discretion in what they decide to pursue, he said.

“It’s a way for them to say, ‘Well, I’m not saying we’re changing state law. I’m just saying we’re going to enforce our city ordinance rather than state law,’” he said.

In Maine, possession of 1.25 ounces of marijuana or less is a civil offense that carries a fine of $350 to $600. For amounts up to 2.5 ounces, fines range from $700 to $1,000.

Incarceration becomes a possible penalty for amounts of more than 2.5 ounces.

Assistant Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Portland officers have a lot of discretion in how they do their jobs. Sauschuck said he was not familiar with the petition drive.

“I can tell you right now, we’re going to abide by state law and support our officers’ discretion,” he said.

Eder said the measure’s proponents want to codify Portland law enforcement’s approach, to avoid confusion.

The top federal prosecutor in Maine recently told state lawmakers that Maine’s medical marijuana law contradicts federal law and that the U.S. Department of Justice reserves the right to prosecute.

Students who are fined for even lesser levels of possession face problems, including ineligibility for federal Pell Grants for tuition, Eder noted.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson has no comment on the petition drive at this point, said spokeswoman Tamara Getchell.

City attorney Gary Wood said he will not issue a legal opinion unless the measure passes at the polls.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]