As advocates of legal marijuana celebrated Tuesday’s big election victories in Portland and other U.S. cities, a national group launched a campaign in Maine to fight the spreading movement.
Portland’s 2-to-1 vote to adopt an ordinance making possession of small amounts of marijuana legal for adults sets up Maine to become the first state on the East Coast to end marijuana prohibition, advocates said Wednesday.
“I view the Portland victory as one of the best signs of what’s to come nationwide,” said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which helped finance the Portland campaign.
A state representative from Portland asked legislative leaders Wednesday to reconsider a bill that would put the question of legalizing marijuana to voters statewide. That bill was narrowly defeated in the last session.
Advocates will likely run into more opposition to legalization statewide than in Portland, where there was no organized opposition.
Late Tuesday night, the national nonprofit group Project SAM – Smart Approach to Marijuana – announced the launch of a state affiliate, SAM Maine. Project SAM is made up of concerned citizens, doctors and business leaders.
“Maine is on the brink of creating a massive marijuana industry that will inevitably target teens and other vulnerable populations,” former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Project SAM’s national chairman, said in a written statement. “It’s time to clear the smoke and get the facts out about this drug.”
Portland’s ordinance, effective Dec. 6, will allow people 21 and older to possess as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana within city limits.
The ordinance is largely symbolic because marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Under state law, medicinal marijuana is legal but possession for recreational use is a civil offense with fines of $350 to $1,000. Furnishing, selling or packaging the drug for sale can bring criminal charges.
Portland police plan to continue enforcing the state law.
The Marijuana Policy Project is considering using citizen petitions to get ordinances similar to Portland’s in front of voters in other Maine communities next year, said David Boyer, the group’s political director in Maine. The 2014 gubernatorial election will likely have high voter turnout, which should give the group a sense of what voters are thinking.
Boyer said the group will likely pursue a referendum in Lewiston, which has a large Franco-American population, and a few other communities.
Nationally, sentiment toward legalizing recreational marijuana is growing. This year, two national polls – by Pew and Gallup – showed a majority of Americans favoring legalization for the first time ever. Fifty-two percent favored it in a Pew poll released in the spring, and 58 percent supported it in Gallup’s poll last month.
The rapidly changing attitudes have prompted the Marijuana Policy Project to expand its number of legalization initiatives nationwide.
Earlier this year, the group announced that Maine is one of 10 states in which it is seeking to legalize marijuana by 2016. Three states have since been added to that list, Tvert said.
Ballot initiatives are being eyed for 2016 in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada. A petition effort is already under way for a 2014 ballot measure in Alaska.
Legislative initiatives are being considered in Hawaii, Delaware, Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Sixty-seven percent of Portland voters supported the ordinance Tuesday, as several pro-pot measures passed at polls across the country.
In Michigan, several towns voted by 2-1 ratios to remove all penalties for marijuana possession.
In Colorado, 62 percent of residents voted in support of taxing marijuana sales. Recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado with a statewide vote last year.
The Marijuana Policy Project sees Maine following Colorado. In 2005, nearly 54 percent of voters in Denver voted to legalize marijuana in the city. The state followed suit last year, when 55 percent of residents voted to legalize marijuana.
Also last year, voters in Washington state approved legalization.
This summer, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not try to block Washington and Colorado from allowing marijuana.
The Maine Legislature has rejected two bills to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. In the last legislative session, a proposal by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, to put the question to voters failed by four votes in the House and 17 votes in the Senate. All of Portland’s eight-member legislative delegation supported Russell’s bill, except for Rep. Mark Dion and Senate President Justin Alfond.
On Wednesday, Russell sent a letter to House Speaker Mark Eves, asking the Legislative Council to reconsider a bill that would ask voters statewide to legalize marijuana. Eves, a Democrat, chairs the council, which decides which bills will be taken up in the next session.
Russell said she is working on a bill to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol and establish a youth prevention task force.
The level of support for legalization in Portland – the state’s largest city – makes advocates confident that the state will follow.
“It’s quite likely we will see Maine emerge as one of the first – if not the first – East Coast state to end marijuana prohibition,” said Tvert, with the Marijuana Policy Project. “This was a significant victory.”
SAM Maine, which opposes legalization, is led by Scott Gagnon, a longtime prevention worker in Maine. Gagnon said the group’s goal is to have a balanced, fully informed conversation about marijuana.
Today’s strains of marijuana are much more potent than those of a decade ago, so it is more addictive, Gagnon said.
In addition to opposing legalization, the group has outlined four goals: inform public policy; prevent the establishment of a “Big Marijuana” industry; find ways to achieve medicinal benefits of marijuana without the smoke or psychoactive elements; and reduce the unintended consequences of current marijuana policies.
The group began to form in response to Russell’s most recent bill.
“When the Portland referendum came out, it underscored the importance of getting organized,” Gagnon said. “The conversation (in Portland) was really one-sided.”