SOUTH PORTLAND — South Portland voters will decide this fall whether the city should pass an ordinance legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The South Portland City Council voted 7-0 Monday night to put the question before voters, bringing a close to weeks of petition gathering, campaigning and public debate.
Monday’s vote was the final action required after councilors earlier this month took a preliminary vote to send the proposal to voters.
The council could have waited 15 months to put the question out to a citywide referendum, but there was consensus that delaying a vote wouldn’t resolve the issue.
The citizen-initiated referendum question will appear on South Portland’s Nov. 4 ballot.
Similar marijuana legalization questions may be presented to voters in York and Lewiston if a campaign initiated by Maine’s chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project succeeds.
Before the vote, each city councilor made a point of voicing opposition to the use of marijuana. The measure headed to voters would make it legal for a person 21 years and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. The ordinance would prohibit the use of marijuana in public.
Its passage would have more political significance than practical effect, since marijuana remains illegal under state and federal laws. Legalization advocates hope the efforts build momentum toward a statewide legalization vote in 2016.
“As a parent, grandparent, coach and teacher I’ve always told my kids to steer clear of drugs and I really meant it,” South Portland Mayor Gerald Jalbert said.
Legalizing marijuana possession would send a mixed message to youths, who would accuse adults of lying to them about the dangers of drug use, the mayor said.
“This (citizen ordinance) is nothing more than a ploy for 2016, but I do believe it needs to go to the voters,” Jalbert said.
More than 1,110 South Portland residents signed a petition earlier this year asking that the city legalize the possession of a small amount of marijuana.
David Boyer is the Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, the group that has been leading petition campaigns in the three target cities.
During remarks to the council, Boyer argued that marijuana is less addictive and dangerous than alcohol.
“It doesn’t make users violent or angry. Nobody gets high and beats their wife,” he said.
South Portland resident Russ Lunt wasn’t buying Boyer’s argument.
“If you listen to Mr. Boyer he makes it sound like marijuana is the new miracle drug,” Lunt said. “It’s not aspirin. He makes it sound like it’s the next best thing to peanut butter.”
Boyer said the York campaign hit a snag when its Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 last month not to place the legalization proposal on the November ballot.
Boyer’s group was forced to start a petition drive to collect a minimum of 641 signatures – 10 percent of the people who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election in York – to get the question onto the ballot. The group has until Aug. 27 to meet the filing deadline.
In Lewiston, the City Council is scheduled to vote Sept. 2 on whether to place the legalization question on its November ballot. Boyer said his group collected more than 1,200 petition signatures in that drive.