Portland’s legislative delegation is split on Tuesday’s referendum on legalizing marijuana in the city.
A survey Friday showed that five of the city’s eight state representatives support Question 1 on the ballot and three oppose it.
Democratic Sen. Anne Haskell said she supports the initiative. Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic Reps. Diane Russell and Matt Moonen and independent Rep. Ben Chipman announced their support for the initiative at a news conference Friday morning in front of East End Cupcakes on Fore Street. Democratic Rep. Peter Stuckey was listed as another supporter, but did not appear at the news conference.
“We believe this is the next step to moving away from prohibition and toward a regulatory structure that protects our children, protects our families and makes sure we allocate our police resources in a more responsible manner,” Russell said in a prepared statement.
Democratic Rep. Denise Harlow said she supports Question 1 and has heard nothing but support from her constituents.
“I base my legislative votes on responses from my constituents,” Harlow said. “I will be supporting Question 1, but (I) do have concerns about lack of education regarding health concerns connected with usage.”
Democratic Rep. Mark Dion, a lawyer and former Cumberland County sheriff who supports medicinal use of marijuana, said he opposes Question 1 because legalization of recreational use is a matter for the federal government to resolve.
Dion said proponents are creating a false impression that passage would actually make the drug legal – so much that people have contacted him about ways to set up marijuana retail shops in Portland. But, he noted, it will remain illegal under state and federal laws.
Rather than promote Question 1 on a false premise, he said, proponents should admit the effort is nothing more than a political statement aimed at changing state and federal marijuana laws.
Democratic Reps. Erik Jorgensen and Richard Farnsworth said they oppose the initiative. Both questioned the practicality of having a city ordinance conflict with state law.
“I see this as distinctly different from the statewide effort, which would have allowed every voter in Maine to weigh in on a type of legalization that would have come with significant regulation, taxation, abuse prevention programs, and other controls,” Jorgensen said in an email.
While Sen. Alfond did not respond to requests for comment, he voted against the bill that Jorgensen mentioned. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Russell, would have put the question of statewide legalization to voters.
Sen. Haskell, who supports Question 1, downplayed the conflicts the ordinance could create with state law, equating the ordinance to Maine’s medical marijuana law, which conflicts with the federal law against marijuana.
Question 1 would also send a message to lawmakers, she said. “It tells where people are on this issue and it tells us where people want to be.”
Passage of Question 1 would enact a local ordinance legalizing possession of as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana by people 21 and older within city limits.
The Portland Green Independent Committee collected more than 2,500 signatures to put the proposal before the City Council. The council voted 6-1 to put it on the ballot, rather than adopt the ordinance.
Councilor John Coyne was the lone dissenter in that vote, citing the conflict the ordinance would have with state and federal laws.
The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project is helping the Portland Green Independent Committee promote Question 1.
David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said Question 1 demonstrates support for regulating and taxing marijuana at the state and federal levels. He conceded that it will not change state law, which supersedes local ordinances, but said passage would send a message to police that enforcement should be a lower priority.
“The practical impact is up to law enforcement,” Boyer said. “We don’t think adults should be punished for marijuana at all.”