PORTLAND – The leader of a national group pushing to legalize marijuana around the country is in Maine this week to lay the groundwork for legalization efforts here.
The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project has made Maine one of 10 states in which the group is looking to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana use by people age 21 and older in 2016.
And it sees the possibility of a big step forward this November, when Portland voters will consider an ordinance that would remove all penalties for adult possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.
“(Portland’s effort) starts the debate the same way Denver started the debate in Colorado,” said Rob Kampia, the group’s co-founder and executive director.
Colorado last year became one of two states to approve legalization, nearly eight years after Denver did it at the city level.
Kampia will spend three days in Maine, meeting with medical marijuana dispensary owners and caregivers, as well as media outlets, legislators and potential political donors in Portland, Augusta, Bangor and Down East.
In an interview with the Press Herald, he noted the similarities among legalization efforts in Maine and Colorado.
Maine is one of 16 U.S. states that have decriminalized marijuana possession, which means someone caught with up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal use (and not packegd for sale) will be issued a summons much like a parking ticket, and will not be arrested.
Marijuana was also decriminalized in Colorado in 2005, when Denver voted to go one step further and remove all civil penalties for possession by adults. In 2012, voters statewide voted to legalize the drug.
“We look at Maine as being on a similar track as Colorado, only here we hope the trajectory will be three years rather than eight,” Kampia said.
Marijuana is currently illegal under federal law. Earlier this month, however, the Justice Department announced that it would not sue Washington state or Colorado over plans to tax and regulate pot sales for adults as long as the states adhere to federal priorities, such as preventing drugged driving and keeping marijuana away from kids and off the black market.
In Maine, voters legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes in 1999 and approved the sale of medical marijuana by regulated dispensaries in 2009.
The Maine Legislature, meanwhile, has rejected two proposals to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. During the last legislative session, a proposal by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, to put the legalization question to voters failed by four votes in the House and 17 votes in the Senate.
The Marijuana Policy Project will continue its efforts to persuade the Legislature to legalize recreational marijuana. If those efforts are not successful, the group will spearhead a statewide petition effort to let voters decide in 2016, Kampia said.
The group’s Maine political director, David Boyer, said the state’s marijuana advocates are gaining momentum, in part because of the new federal guidance to pro-legalization states. “We have the wind at our backs,” Boyer said.
Some public health advocates have said they fear the effort to legalize adult use could send the wrong message to young people, who are more susceptible to the drug’s harmful effects. And some in the law enforcement community have expressed reservations, while stopping short of outright opposition.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Monday that if voters approve the ordinance in November, it will have no practical effect on police priorities because state law will not change.
“As police chief, I would never advise or give guidance to our officers that we should circumvent state or federal laws,” Sauschuck said. “This ordinance would have no impact” on local policing.
Kampia said Denver police took a similar position after that city’s 2005 vote. Police continued to enforce state marijuana laws until Denver residents passed a separate ordinance in 2007 directing police to de-prioritize marijuana offenses, he said.
Kampia, 44, founded the Marijuana Policy Project in 1995 after graduating from Penn State with an engineering degree and a concentration in physics.
He was derailed from his ambition to become an astronaut when he was busted for growing marijuana in his home and was jailed for three months. Since then, he has been a marijuana activist.
Last year, the Marijuana Policy Project had a budget of $1.4 million, up from $970,000 in 2011, according to tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
Its board of directors includes celebrity authors, musicians, actors and comedians, such as Tommy Chong, Bill Maher, Jack Black, Susan Sarandon, Adam Carolla, Ani DiFranco and Melissa Etheridge.
Its sister organization, the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation, which focuses on education, had a budget of $3.5 million — more than twice its 2011 budget.
Kampia expects its budget to swell in 2016, when the group plans to have citizen initiatives in five states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine.
Along with raising funds here, Kampia said he is meeting with dispensary owners and caregivers in Maine, because they have a financial stake in the current medical marijuana system. He would like to get their input — and ultimately their support — on any potential legalization effort.
The Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine recently announced its support for Portland’s effort, which is being spearheaded by the Maine Green Independent Party. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the NAACP are also supporting the initiative.
Becky DeKeuster, executive director of the Wellness Connection of Maine, which owns four of the state’s eight dispensaries — including one in Portland — said she isn’t taking a position on Portland’s initiative. The organization’s support of any statewide effort would depend on the language of the bill, she said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: