Allow me to squeeze this week’s City Hall news into Portland’s new marketing slogan:
“Portland. Yes. Catching a buzz is good here.”
Monday evening, the Portland City Council took a pass on a citizens initiative to make recreational use of marijuana legal in Maine’s largest municipality. Instead, by a 5-1 vote, the council sent the measure on for the local citizenry to decide on Nov. 5.
Yeah, I know, it’s always dangerous to predict in July what voters will do in November. But trust me, the city the rest of Maine loves to hate is about to give a whole new meaning to “The Way Life Should Be.”
(Or, as George Washington himself wrote in a note to his gardener at Mount Vernon way back in 1794, “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere!”)
“I think even if we didn’t do anything from now until November, it would pass,” said David Boyer, Maine political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, in an interview Tuesday. “But we’re going to work it and make sure it passes, hopefully with a comfortable margin.”
Boyer, who comes to this issue by way of Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and the Maine-based Defense of Liberty PAC, has good reason to be optimistic:
Back in 1999, when Maine voters overwhelmingly approved the use of medical marijuana, Portland led that charge, with more than 72 percent of the city’s electorate in favor. And when the expanded use of medicinal pot and the creation of dispensaries statewide passed in 2009, more than 75 percent of Portlanders who voted gave it a hearty thumbs-up.
City Councilor David Marshall, who cast the sole vote Monday in favor of approving the recreational-marijuana measure without even sending it to referendum, said Tuesday he’ll be surprised if the numbers this time match the city’s way-high majorities of 1999 and 2009. Still, he said, “I do feel there’s a majority of voters who will support it.”
Which, of course, will raise all kinds of interesting questions. And, alas, some not-so-startling answers.
For example, in a pot-friendly Portland, what will become of the First Friday Art Walk? (Picture a pungent haze over the city’s arts district, sidewalk displays of edible jewelry ….)
“It’s not meant to put marijuana in people’s faces,” replied Marshall. “It’s meant for people to have their own private use of it.”
Meaning the proposed ordinance would prohibit “recreational use of marijuana in public spaces, school grounds, and on transportation infrastructure.”
“Roads or sidewalks,” replied Marshall. “Anything people use to move around from one place to another.”
So much for the secondhand high in Monument Square.
Then there’s the matter of those pesky state and federal laws that still prohibit recreational pot use and, last time we checked, would trump Portland’s embrace of the erstwhile evil weed.
What’s a local police officer to do if and when he or she walks past an apartment house on Munjoy Hill and through a cloud of Granddaddy Purple (it’s from northern California) wafting over the back fence?
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, wise man, told Press Herald City Hall reporter Randy Billings before Monday’s council meeting that he’s taking a wait-and-see approach. (Sauschuck also noted that his officers have issued 53 civil summonses for small-scale marijuana possession in the past 12 months, down from 68 the year before.)
Mayor Michael Brennan, on the other hand, said Tuesday that he doesn’t expect Portland’s finest to behave any differently should legalized marijuana become, if not the law of the land, at least the law of the city.
“I would expect the vote and the referendum to have no impact on how police go about doing their job,” he said.
Meaning no looking the other way? No, whaddya call it, police discretion?
“They have that now,” replied Brennan. “And I would suspect that they don’t spend most of their time and resources chasing after people who have two or three marijuana cigarettes or half an ounce of marijuana in their pocket.”
(Agreed Boyer from the Marijuana Policy Project, “That’s why we give them shiny badges and guns, because they’re smart enough to use discretion.”)
Brennan, for one, isn’t all that impressed with the oft-repeated argument that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and thus should enjoy the same legal status. Used to excess, he noted, either substance can do real harm.
Nor, conversely, is Hizzoner a big fan of marijuana laws that disproportionately target minority populations and fill up jails and prisons with people “who shouldn’t be there.”
So where does that leave Brennan as his city, once again, goes where no other Maine municipality has gone before? (See: Portland’s 2001 referendum, passed 52 to 48 percent, calling for statewide universal health insurance.)
“I haven’t made a firm decision,” Brennan replied. “But at this point I’d be leaning toward probably supporting it.”
That said, Brennan quickly added, “This isn’t an issue I feel I’m going to jump out in front on. Nor do I think passage of this is crucial to the future of Portland one way or the other.”
That could change in a big way if, as Boyer, Marshall and other marijuana advocates predict, Maine voters see a pot referendum on the statewide ballot sometime around 2016.
A bill to allow recreational use, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, did surprisingly well in the Maine House last month, falling only four votes short of final passage.
Portland’s ordinance, after all, contains nary a word about taxing the 2.5 ounces of pot each adult could possess at any given time. Russell’s proposed statute, on the other hand, would have imposed a $50-per-ounce excise tax on pot sales from licensed cultivation facilities, $35 of which would have gone into the state’s general fund.
And lest that sound like a pipe dream, consider what’s about to happen in Colorado, one of two states (along with Washington) where voters endorsed recreational use of marijuana last fall: Once the excise and sales tax revenues from pot sales start rolling in, the first $40 million raised each year will go into Colorado’s public school capital assistance fund.
So go ahead, Portland, lead the way on this one. And when the rest of Maine finally catches up with you, feel free to add yet another variation to that all-purpose branding slogan of yours:
“Portland. Yes. Drug dealers go broke here.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: