WASHINGTON – Bolstered by political victories out West, a marijuana advocacy group is now looking at Maine and other New England states as fertile ground for its next major push to legalize a drug that’s gaining wider acceptance from the American public.
The Marijuana Policy Project plans to pursue ballot initiatives or legislative efforts in 10 states to legalize pot for recreational use by essentially regulating it like alcohol or tobacco. Four of those states are in New England: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island.
In some ways, the proponents of legalized marijuana appear to be following the political path of the gay-rights community. Four of the first six states to legally recognize same-sex marriage were in New England, and the region’s other two states have since followed.
“In New England, there is a sensibility among voters when it comes to marijuana issues,” said Mason Tvert, national spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which bills itself as the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization.
The organization plans to pursue ballot initiatives in five states, including Maine, and legislation in the other five. David Boyer, Maine political director for the organization, said it is aiming for the 2016 election to capture the largest possible voting pool — especially younger voters.
“We want to make sure those voters are (represented), and they are more likely to participate in a presidential election than an off year,” Boyer said.
In a recent automated telephone poll of Maine voters by Public Policy Polling, 48 percent of respondents supported legalization and 39 percent opposed it. Senior citizens were the only age group that opposed legalization.
The legalization of marijuana has been debated for decades. The political push gained significant traction last fall when residents of Colorado and Washington voted to allow recreational use.
Those votes followed other major policy shifts in recent years. Twenty states and the District of Columbia now allow medicinal use of marijuana, and 16 states have downgraded possession of small amounts of the drug from a criminal offense to a civil offense, often compared to a traffic ticket. The drug remains illegal under federal law.
Maine legalized medical marijuana in 1999 and significantly expanded the program a decade later. Today, the state has a tightly regulated system of medical marijuana dispensaries and growers.
A bill in the Legislature that would have allowed Maine voters to decide whether to legalize pot for recreational use fell four votes short of passage in the House earlier this year.
In Maine and other states, concerns remain about whether federal law enforcement officials would try to intervene in policing of marijuana. A memo last month from the U.S. Department of Justice addressed some of those concerns and emboldened advocates of legalization.
The memo indicated that the department would not seek to block implementation of the voter-approved laws allowing recreational use in Washington and Colorado.
The department said federal authorities would intervene only in eight specific circumstances, including cases when pot is distributed or marketed to minors, is trafficked across state lines to states where marijuana is illegal, or when sellers are linked to drug cartels or other criminal organizations.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a first-ever hearing on the potential conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Deputy Attorney General James Cole whether the Department of Justice’s Aug. 29 memo indicated — as some have suggested — that the department is “abdicating” its responsibility in enforcing drug laws.
Cole said his office would take seriously any violations of the eight criteria outlined in the memo, regardless of whether the state has legalized marijuana.
“We are not giving immunity,” Cole said. “We are not giving a free pass. We are not abdicating our responsibility. We are dedicating ourselves to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in regard to marijuana when it (violates) those federal priorities.”
Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center in California, said the memo is likely to influence the conversation on legalization, but states have a wide range of options between prohibition of marijuana and commercial enterprises selling legal pot for maximum profit.
He also noted that federal policies on marijuana can change with administrations. So while Kilmer expects to hear more discussion in other states, he isn’t ready to predict a groundswell of efforts to legalize the drug for recreational use.
“A lot depends on the federal response,” Kilmer said. “And it will be interesting to see what happens in the next administration.”
In Maine, the Marijuana Policy Project has ramped up its early campaign by distributing information at events such as the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland, the Yarmouth Clam Festival and a recent beer festival in Portland. Signature-gathering for the ballot cannot begin for some time, under Maine law.
Major ballot initiative campaigns aren’t cheap in Maine. Boyer and Tvert said they expect donations to come from both Mainers and residents of other states who support the cause.
“Marijuana Policy Project is definitely prepared to spend what it needs to to make sure it does pass,” Boyer said. “I can safely say that it will be in six figures.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: