A panel of experts was sharply divided over whether a movement to legalize recreational marijuana, which took root in Portland last year when voters approved a law allowing an adult to legally possess less than 2.5 ounces, will give city youth easier access to the drug.

Several panelists said the new ordinance is sending a mixed message to young people, while others argued that the city needs to focus less on enforcement and criminalizing marijuana use, and more on education and prevention. Portland police say possession of less than 2.5 ounces still constitutes a civil violation, and even the ordinance makes it illegal for anyone under age 21 to possess or use marijuana.

Wednesday night’s forum, held at the Portland Public Library, was sponsored by 21 Reasons, a coalition dedicated to preventing underage drinking and substance abuse, in collaboration with the city’s health department.

“There has been a lot of talk recently about marijuana. It is important that we come together to talk about the unique risks and gain a deeper understanding of what the legalization movement means to our youth,” said Jo Morrissey, 21 Reasons’ program manager.

Last November, 67 percent of Portland voters supported legalizing possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for adults age 21 and older. The ordinance allows adults to possess marijuana in public, but prohibits people from using it in public. It is still illegal under city ordinance to buy or sell marijuana and landlords have the right to prohibit smoking in their apartments.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Medicinal use of marijuana is allowed under state law and Maine is one of 16 states that have decriminalized possession of smaller amounts. That means someone caught possessing less than 2.5 ounces is subject to a civil summons and fine.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his department will continue to enforce state law.

But the police chief said the legalization movement “continues to confuse our youth.”

“They are going to look at that (legalization) and say it must be healthy and safe to use,” Sauschuck said.

“What it does is reaffirm that marijuana, like alcohol, is for adults 21 years and older,” said David Boyer, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Maine.

The policy project, in a statement posted on its website, criticized the police chief.

“Sauschuck’s decision to defy the will of the people is especially baffling considering that local police in cities like Jackson, Mich., have announced they will respect voters’ decision to make marijuana legal for adults.”

Sauschuck was asked whether it was legal to buy, sell or use marijuana in Portland.

“No it is not,” the chief said.

“What has happened in the city of Portland is a symbolic victory,” said Scott Gagnon, a panelist representing the Maine Chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

In its literature, which was available at Wednesday’s meeting, Smart Approaches says the legalization of marijuana will usher in America’s “new version of Big Tobacco.” The group said the marijuana industry is already marketing cannabis food and candy to children on the Internet. And Smart Approaches believes that ordinances such as the one passed in Portland will make it easier for youth to acquire marijuana.

Gagnon said marijuana use can negatively affect a young person’s developing brain, lowering the IQ and affecting mental health and academic performance.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com