The post-election party rolls on as organizers celebrate the landslide victory of their Portland marijuana legalization referendum Tuesday.
But they shouldn’t party too hard: The new ordinance changes little legally and anyone who thinks it does is putting themselves in jeopardy.
When the ordinance goes into effect, it will be legal to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use in Portland as long as you don’t smoke it, buy it, sell it, grow it or do anything but keep it in your house or carry it concealed in your pocket.
But if you are arrested for another offense and have to empty your pockets at the jail, you can expect to be charged with possession, just as you would be today.
What the vote does do is send a message – a very powerful one – to lawmakers in Augusta. An overwhelming majority in the state’s biggest city voted against the War-on-Drugs approach to controlling substance abuse. This will give momentum to the effort to put a marijuana legalization question before Maine voters, either through legislative action or by petition. And polls suggest that the result could be the same as the election on Tuesday.
But until that vote is held, no one should be under any illusions that Portland is some kind of refuge from the drug laws.
Possession of less than two-and-a-half ounces of pot is a civil infraction anywhere in Maine, even Portland, and is punished by a fine of $350 to $600.
But other consequences can be more serious. A record of drug convictions can affect eligibility for government services or federal financial aid for students. Regardless of whether people support the current marijuana laws, they should be aware of the risks that come with breaking them.
Tuesday’s vote is another piece of evidence that state and federal drug laws are in conflict with each other, and that both sets of laws are out of step with a large segment of the populace, perhaps a majority if recent polls are accurate.
But there is no such thing as local criminal laws. A municipality can’t legalize marijuana any more than it could hold a referendum to legalize robbery or murder. Local police are sworn to enforce the law and no one should expect officers to do any less.
So supporters of the marijuana referendum can celebrate their victory Tuesday, which may be a step toward the real legalization of marijuana. But anyone who believes that the legalization has already occurred is putting themselves at risk.