PORTLAND — If Maine is allowed to ignore federal law when it comes to medical marijuana, does that mean the city of Portland would be able to ignore federal and state laws when it comes to the recreational use of pot?
The Portland Green Independent Committee thinks so.
The group plans to collect signatures for a referendum that would ask residents whether they want to legalize marijuana within city limits.
Chairman Tom MacMillan said he plans to deliver the request to the City Clerk’s Office on Thursday. Once the clerk certifies the petition, supporters have 80 days to gather 1,500 valid signatures. If that happens, a citywide vote could happen as early as November.
The petition language has not been finalized, but the Greens are expected to propose legalizing the possession of up to 2.5 ounces as well as possession of drug paraphernalia, such as bongs or pipes. Currently, state law decriminalizes possession of less than 1.25 ounces, making it a civil violation punishable by a fine of up to $200.
Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, already has submitted a bill that seeks to legalize marijuana statewide so that it can be taxed and regulated much like alcohol. That bill has not been debated. If it passes, it would prompt a statewide voter referendum that, if successful, would make a Portland referendum redundant.
But David Marshall, a Portland city councilor and a Green Independent, said he’s not hopeful that the Legislature will pass a bill calling for a vote to legalize marijuana.
“Any progress that we’ve seen on this has come from voters,” he said Tuesday.
Marshall said the penalties for possession of a small amount of marijuana or for possession of paraphernalia are relatively minor, but “It’s still a crime. It still affects people’s lives.”
When an arrest involves more than 1.25 ounces, law enforcement assumes the possessor is distributing marijuana and the charge is upgraded to a criminal offense. Last year, there were seven arrests in Portland for marijuana cultivation and 69 citations for possession, city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said. In 2011, there were five cultivation arrests and 74 possession citations.
Clegg said city officials were taking a wait-and-see approach on the Green’s proposal and would not comment until the petition language is finalized.
“The language matters,” she said.
City Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she doesn’t see legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana as a local issue.
“It’s very much a state issue or even a federal issue,” she said. “It appears (supporters) are trying to use Portland as a pawn in trying to get support for an issue.”
The idea of legalizing marijuana on a local level has precedent. In 2005, the city of Denver passed a referendum that eliminated the penalty for possessing a small amount of marijuana. That referendum led to further weakening of city laws about marijuana and paved the way for a statewide referendum that passed last November legalizing marijuana statewide.
The state of Washington also legalized all uses of marijuana last year. Eighteen states have varying laws that allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
The Denver initiative — and later the statewide push — was successful in large part because of the efforts of a group, Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, that argued marijuana is safer than alcohol.
Marshall said supporters in Portland are likely to use that same argument.
The Green Independent Party represents only about 5.5 percent of all Portland voters, although two city councilors and one school committee member are Greens.
Russell said her bill has not been finalized, but she sees no harm in having local leaders in Portland work on the issue. She is more hopeful than Marshall that an initiative could pass statewide.
“We have a fair amount of growing support. I’m pleasantly surprised,” she said Tuesday.
There is some sense in the cannabis community that Portland already is extremely pot friendly. The website webehigh.org ranks communities on a scale of 1 (very illegal) to 5 (virtually legal). Portland comes in at 4.5.
MacMillan said gathering 1,500 signatures in a city of more than 66,000 people should not be that difficult.
Two years ago, however, the Portland Greens gathered more than 2,100 signatures for a referendum that would have made marijuana the lowest priority for police. That measure didn’t move forward because too many of those signatures were found to be invalid.
This time, MacMillan said, supporters have more time and believe that opinions about legalizing marijuana have evolved.
“The biggest thing is: The state is losing money by not taxing and regulating this,” he said.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: