Portland became the first city on the East Coast to legalize marijuana as voters overwhelmingly passed an ordinance Tuesday allowing adults to possess small amounts of the drug.
With all 12 of the city’s precincts reporting, unofficial totals showed the proposal passing with 67 percent of the vote — 9,921 to 4,823.
The ordinance allows people 21 and older to possess as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana. It is seen by some as another step toward legalization across the country. Supporters say they will build on Portland’s vote with a statewide legalization effort in the next two years.
But the immediate and practical effects of Tuesday’s vote are hazy.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and is legal only for medical use under state law. Portland’s ordinance does not set up any legal way to obtain marijuana.
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has said that, regardless of Tuesday’s vote, officers will continue to enforce state law, which says possessing as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana can lead to a civil summons and fines of $350 to $1,000. Furnishing, selling or packaging the drug for sale can bring criminal charges.
Supporters of ballot Question 1 claimed victory after opening a huge lead in early voting results.
Their campaign party Tuesday night at Brian Boru on Center Street was festive from the start. It began shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. with a belly dancing performance by Whitley “Nabintu” Marshall. The band Stream Reggae picked it up from there and kept the crowd afloat until the group claimed victory just before 9:30 p.m.
When the announcement was made, the crowd erupted, chanting “Yes on 1” and “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
Members of the Portland Green Independent Committee, which collected more than 2,500 signatures to put the measure on the ballot, credited their volunteers and grass-roots get-out-the-vote campaign for the win.
City Councilor David Marshall said young voters turned out in force. “People were so excited to be out there voting today,” he said.
David Boyer, Maine political director for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, said the city should respect the will of its voters and not arrest or fine adults for possessing marijuana.
“We call on city officials to stop the bleeding,” said Boyer, who quickly turned his attention to the statewide legalization effort. “It’s time for the state of Maine to follow Portland.”
Boyer said the Marijuana Policy Project will try to legalize marijuana through the Legislature. If it can’t, the group will pursue a statewide referendum in 2016, he said.
State Rep. Diane Russell, who has submitted two unsuccessful bills to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol, said Portland’s vote will energize voters statewide.
“Passage of Question 1 would significantly leapfrog momentum and enthusiasm for a statewide taxation and regulation model, replacing the failed Prohibition era,” she said.
Before the polls closed, election officials at the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall reported a strong turnout and more than the usual number of voter registrations.
Officials also reported a pungent odor as voters came and went throughout the day.
A group of five young voters said they voted solely on the marijuana question. As they left the polls, one of them shouted, “Let’s go smoke a blunt.”
Tim Lippert, 62, of Anderson Street said he voted in support of legalizing marijuana, even though he doesn’t think people should use it. He holds the same view of alcohol.
“We’re not voting on whether it’s smart to use (marijuana),” he said. “We’re voting on whether it should be legal.”
Election Administrator Bud Philbrick said voter turnout was higher than expected. “It seems the (marijuana) question on the ballot has generated some interest,” he said.
Thirty-five percent of Portland’s 52,000 registered voters cast ballots.
The Marijuana Policy Project is aiming to legalize marijuana in Maine and nine other 10 states by 2016. It spent more than $10,000 on the campaign in Portland, which it views as a springboard to a statewide legalization effort.
The group has drawn parallels between Portland and Maine and the legalization efforts in Colorado. The city of Denver voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana in 2005. Last year, Colorado voters legalized marijuana statewide, as did voters in Washington.
The U.S. Justice Department has said it will not prevent Colorado and Washington from implementing their laws. That position has encouraged advocates for legalization around the country.
Portland wasn’t the only community in U.S. that had marijuana on its ballot. Voters in Colorado were weighing in on proposed taxes for recreational marijuana, while several communities in Michigan were voting to remove penalties for marijuana possession by adults.
More Americans are changing their minds about marijuana. For the first time, two national polls — Pew and Gallup — recorded a majority this year who favor legalizing marijuana.
There was no organized opposition to Portland’s marijuana initiative, although some in the addiction treatment and prevention community have said the proposal would increase access and abuse and send a message to children that the drug is harmless.
On Friday, the Maine Public Health Association came out against the ordinance. One Portland resident paid about $200 to put up signs in opposition.
Portland’s city attorney, Danielle West-Chuhta, said the ordinance will take effect 30 days after the declaration of the official canvass of the return of the election.
When asked if the city would sue to block the new ordinance, she said, “At this time, the city has not decided what next steps, if any, it will take with regard to the ordinance.”
When voters in Washington state voted to legalize marijuana last year, people celebrated by smoking it in front of police officers. Chief Sauschuck said he hopes that doesn’t happen here.
“I continue to understand the symbolic effort behind this referendum,” he said, “but I hope that no matter which way the vote goes, that our residents comply with state law.”