WASHINGTON — The battle over marijuana legalization could be coming to three more Maine communities this November.
A national organization that helped successfully campaign for legalization of recreational pot use in Portland last year plans to target Lewiston, South Portland and York this fall as it lays the groundwork for a statewide legalization campaign in 2016.
The Marijuana Policy Project plans to conduct petition drives to put the question to voters in the three communities in an effort to keep the legalization debate moving in Maine. The efforts could benefit from the higher voter turnout likely in an election for governor.
The group has not yet started the petition drives.
“We definitely want it to be an election issue,” David Boyer, Maine political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told the Portland Press Herald on Monday. “We think voters should know where gubernatorial candidates stand on this issue, particularly because one of them is going to be governor in 2016 when it does pass (statewide).”
This coincides with a clear shift in attitude toward pot use among the public and politicians, including those in the White House.
In an interview published in The New Yorker this week, President Obama described marijuana use as “a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life.”
“I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” he said, echoing an argument frequently made by legalization advocates.
The president stopped well short of endorsing legalization, but said he is concerned that minorities are arrested at disproportionately high rates for pot violations. The Obama administration has said it will not interfere with laws in Colorado and Washington state that legalize recreational use as long as pot is not sold to minors or trafficked out of state.
“The experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge,” Obama said.
STRATEGIC CHOICES OF TOWNS
Legalization advocates see the political tide turning in their favor. Borrowing a page from the same-sex marriage playbook, they view New England as fertile ground and are gearing up for a 2016 referendum in Maine as well as ballot or legislative initiatives in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island.
Boyer said this year’s three local campaigns will attempt to build on the success in Portland – 67 percent of voters in November supported an ordinance legalizing possession by adults of up to 2.5 ounces of pot – and to “demonstrate that this has support around the state.”
Towns were chosen for both political and geographic reasons, Boyer said.
“We want to make sure we can win in every town and reach out to every voter, and these three (communities) give us that opportunity,” he said.
Lewiston is one of Maine’s biggest and most diverse cities but also has a large Franco-American contingent that often leans conservative, thereby making the city an early test case for a statewide campaign.
South Portland is next to a city where marijuana is already technically legal, although Portland police have vowed to enforce the state law that treats possession of smaller amounts of pot as a civil infraction. Boyer said York was chosen because of its proximity to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Reaction was mixed on Monday.
The chairman of the York Board of Selectmen, Ron Nowell, said he was puzzled by the group’s selection of the property-rich town, which often elects Republican state legislators.
“It’s almost comical. Why would they pick York? York has a tradition of being a bastion of Republican conservatism,” said Nowell, a town selectman for more than 20 years. “I find this to be bizarre.”
Nowell said he has no idea how the town would vote on the issue if it makes it onto the local ballot, especially considering the younger and more affluent newcomers to town.
South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert said he would oppose any attempt to legalize marijuana possession, in large part because it would put the community in conflict with state and federal law.
“I cannot imagine a police chief who would not enforce state law,” Jalbert said. “Yes, this could be driven by the citizens (to a citywide vote), but I will be honest, I would not support it. It’s not what I consider to be a defensible position.”
Lt. Thomas Simonds, with the South Portland Police Department, acknowledged that recent changes in the laws regarding marijuana possession have created “an increasing amount of conflict between federal, state and local restrictions,” but said state law pre-empts local ordinances in Maine.
OPPOSITION, LAWMAKER CONCERNS
One group that will campaign against the Marijuana Policy Project’s message is the Maine chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which promotes moving beyond an “incarceration versus legalization” debate.
Scott Gagnon, the group’s Maine coordinator, said legalization campaigns do not always tell the whole story and often provide a misleading message that marijuana is a safe substance.
“People look at legalization as an ‘easy button’ that is going to solve all of our problems, but it really isn’t and it is going to create new problems,” Gagnon said.
Maine politicians and political candidates largely would not commit either way on the issue Monday.
“I think my biggest concern with legalizing marijuana is that it could send a message to our kids that drug use is OK,” Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, said in a statement to the Press Herald. “That said, the current system doesn’t work – it has permitted the development of a thriving, unregulated and untaxed black market in non-medicinal marijuana that is easily accessed by children and adolescents, as well as adults.”
Cutler said he would create a task force to look at the issue and recommend whether Maine should follow the lead of Colorado and Washington – and if so, how.
A spokeswoman for Cutler’s Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said he spoke briefly with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper about the issue and believes that “there are important lessons that Maine should consider as other states go through the process of legalization.”
“Congressman Michaud continues to have real concerns about the impact of legalization on children and young adults,” said Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign. “The congressman and his staff have had a number of meetings with advocates, and he continues to evaluate information on legalization.”
Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman and campaign adviser did not respond to requests for comment. In November, LePage’s spokeswoman told the Lewiston Sun Journal that he “has taken an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution and observe the laws of the state.”
SENATORS GATHERING INFORMATION
Among Maine’s delegation, only U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, has supported legalization.
Pingree co-sponsored a bill last year that would have regulated marijuana like alcohol, deleting it from the list of scheduled drugs and placing it under the oversight of the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The bill was never considered.
Sen. Angus King, an independent who served two terms as Maine governor, supports Congress revisiting existing sentencing laws, such as mandatory minimums that remove a judge’s discretion, his office said.
“Senator King believes the decision to legalize marijuana on a federal level for recreational purposes is significant and must be thought through carefully and comprehensively,” spokesman Scott Ogden said in an email. “He is interested to see the effects of legalization in places like Colorado and Washington, as data emerges that will better inform the decision-making process on this issue.”
A spokesman for Republican Sen. Susan Collins said: “While Senator Collins believes that the president and Congress should be focusing like a laser on jobs and the economy, she would look for guidance from Maine’s law enforcement and medical communities in the unlikely event that legalization legislation is debated by the full Senate.”
Collins’ office did not respond to subsequent questions about whether she would support legalization in Maine. She has avoided taking sides in statewide referendum campaigns in the past.
Collins’ Democratic opponent in this year’s election, meanwhile, strongly supports legalization and indicated Monday that she plans to discuss the issue on the campaign trail.
“When you have the past three U.S. presidents acknowledging marijuana use while our country locks up record numbers of primarily black and low-income young men, then something is dramatically wrong and we need change,” Shenna Bellows, the former executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said in an email. “Legalization will benefit our economy and civil rights.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or: