PORTLAND — Buoyed by the federal government’s relaxed stance toward states that legalize marijuana, advocates Thursday officially kicked off a campaign to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults in Portland.

Supporters of this fall’s referendum, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine and the Marijuana Policy Project, said passage of Portland’s ordinance would be the first step in a statewide legalization effort.

“This initiative is a top ACLU priority for this year,” said executive director Shenna Bellows. “We are dedicated to legalizing marijuana statewide because we think the outcome would be reducing Maine’s prison and jail population.”

Voters will be asked at the polls Nov. 5 to adopt a city ordinance that would allow anyone over the age of 21 to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

Bellows said the ACLU of Maine is focusing on reducing the state’s prison population over the next two to five years, and that legalizing marijuana for adults and nonviolent users is one way to do that. “The data demonstrates the war on drugs has failed and that the drug laws are a major driver of our incarceration rates,” Bellows said.

It’s unclear whether there will be any organized opposition to the measure.

Recreational marijuana use is illegal under state and federal law. Maine legalized medical marijuana in 1999 and significantly expanded the program a decade later. Today, the state has a regulated network of medical marijuana growers and caregivers, including a dispensary in Portland.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has said his department is taking a wait-and-see approach regarding enforcement issues that may arise if recreational pot becomes legal under Portland’s ordinance but remains illegal under state and federal law.

The Maine Chiefs of Police Association is generally opposed to any recreational marijuana use in Maine, but won’t take a formal position on the Portland ordinance, according to Executive Director Robert Schwartz.

“You can say what you want, but it’s still against the (state and federal) law,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz also pushed back against the notion that marijuana arrests are clogging the jails and courts, because possession of less than an ounce and a half is civil offense, typically enforced with a summons, not an arrest. “Those things are overblown as far as we’re concerned,” he said of the ACLU’s claims.

Hillary Lister, of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, said legalization is important, especially for those who cannot afford to go to a doctor and get a recommendation for medical use.

Proponents of the proposed ordinance argued that it is in line with new federal enforcement priorities.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced that it would not sue Washington or Colorado over plans to tax and regulate pot sales for adults as long as the states adhere to federal priorities that include preventing drugged driving and keeping marijuana away from kids and off the black market.

City Councilor David Marshall said the proposed ordinance in Portland does not allow anyone to use marijuana in public or while operating a vehicle. It also would allow police or city staff to help federal agents investigate and arrest people suspected of interstate trafficking or supplying it to minors, he said.

The ordinance does not allow for the sale of marijuana, but it does allow an age-appropriate person to “engage in activities for the purpose of ascertaining the possession of marijuana and paraphernalia,” according to a summary distributed Thursday.

“It doesn’t explicitly say you can go out and buy it, but there is sufficient gray area if somebody is caught in the act of purchasing,” Marshall said, noting the language is designed to allow wiggle room in court.

The campaign is being spearheaded by the Maine Green Independent Party, which has raised $1,300 toward its $4,500 fundraising goal, according to Chairman Asher Platts, the “Yes on 1″ campaign’s outreach manager. Ten thousand fliers have been printed to date, he said.

Other groups will likely contribute time and resources to the campaign, including the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group that has designated Maine as one of 10 states where it’s working to end marijuana prohibition by 2017.

Maine Political Director David Boyer said the national group is prepared to spend “whatever it takes” to pass the Portland ordinance, including purchasing ads on city buses. Similar efforts would be undertaken in any statewide initiative.

However, Boyer doesn’t think a major investment is needed in Portland.

“Even if we didn’t drop a cent, I think it would still pass,” Boyer said.

Youth substance abuse counselors, meanwhile, are worried that the ongoing debate will inadvertently increase drug use among minors by reducing the perceived risk.

Jo Morrissey, project manager of 21 Reasons, hopes that proponents of the ordinance will make it clear that drug and alcohol use by young people is never acceptable.

“Our youth are listening and watching,” Morrissey said.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings