A group pushing for marijuana legalization votes in three Maine communities this fall submitted a new petition in York Wednesday, the second petition presented to that town in two months. Town officials, however, may still refuse to schedule a town-wide vote.
The legalization advocacy group Citizens for a Safer Maine on Wednesday submitted more than 900 signatures to the town clerk – nearly nine times the number of signatures presented to the town in July, said David Boyer, Maine director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group pushing to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older.
The Maine group submitted 100 signatures in July supporting an ordinance declaring marijuana possession by adults to be legal. However, selectmen voted 3 to 2 not to put it on the November ballot, saying the proposal is not “lawful” because state and federal laws ban marijuana.
Citizens for a Safer Maine needed at least 641 valid signatures to force the York Board of Selectmen to reconsider whether to hold a referendum. But it’s not clear if the Board of Selectmen will change its position or vote a second time against putting the referendum on the ballot. One of the three members who rejected the referendum in July said his view has not changed, although he wants more legal advice before deciding what to do next.
If rejected a second time, the petitioners might yet force a local vote under a little-used state law that allows a notary public to call for a town meeting when selectmen “unreasonably” refuse to call one.
“We were only one vote shy of having a place on the York ballot,” Boyer said. “I don’t think the selectmen want to disenfranchise nearly 1,000 voters that want this on the ballot.”
The path to the ballot has been more straight-forward in South Portland and Lewiston, where city councilors have the option to enact proposed ordinances or schedule a town-wide vote to decide the issue.
The legalization question had already been placed on the South Portland ballot. The Lewiston City Council is scheduled to vote Sept. 2 whether to enact the ordinance or put the issue on that city’s November ballot.
Citizens for a Safer Maine has targeted South Portland, Lewiston and York as test communities that could be valuable indicators of how Maine will view a statewide legalization effort. The proposals would have more political significance than practical effect, since local police say they would still enforce state laws against marijuana possession. Legalization advocates hope the efforts build momentum toward a statewide legalization vote in 2016.
In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. In November 2013, Portland became the first city on the East Coast to pass a referendum declaring recreational use by adults to be legal.
Ronald Nowell, a York selectmen who wants to put the question on the ballot, said the question could go to York voters even if the board maintains its opposition. A state law allows a notary public “to call a town meeting on the written petition” if a petition is “unreasonably” rejected and the number of signatures equals at least 10 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Legalization supports say they have exceeded that number in York. Nowell said that state law was used to get a question about buying a schoolhouse onto the York ballot two years ago.
“I don’t believe five members of the Board of Selectmen can just ignore (the petition),” he said. “I like the tack taken by the councilors in South Portland, where they voted to put it on the ballot and let citizens decide, while saying all councilors oppose it.”
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said state law does allow a notary public to call a town meeting, but even that process could be disputed in court.
“The problem here is the term ‘unreasonably.’ What is an unreasonable reason to not call a town meeting?” he said. “That’s something that would probably have to be determined in court.”
Mary Andrews, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, and Robert Palmer Jr., vice-chairman, did not return calls for comment Wednesday. Both voted against putting the question on the ballot when the initial petition was submitted.
Selectmen Jonathan Speers, who also voted not to put the question on the ballot, said he is not sure what he will do if the board votes on the petition again.
“To me, I felt the ordinance was unlawful to begin with, I don’t know why things would change just because there are more signatures,” he said.
But Speers said he wants more clarification from the town’s legal counsel about the town charter and whether the board must put the question on the ballot in light of the additional signatures.
“Are we honor bound to put it on the warrant? I don’t know what the correct answer is,” he said. “I feel like I’m in uncharted waters here.”
The board meets next on Sept. 8.
Boyer said the 900 signatures gathered in York show residents support having the opportunity to vote on the issue. “People are fed up with laws that punish adults for using a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol,” he said.
Scott Gagnon, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, said the proposal to legalize marijuana in York is unlawful because it conflicts with state and federal law.
“It will put local officials, law enforcement, teachers and employers all in very difficult and unfair positions to navigate a patchwork of local, state and federal laws,” he said.
If the ballot measures are approved in the other communities, municipal ordinances would be changed to say that possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older as long as it is not consumed or displayed in public. Recreational marijuana use would remain illegal under state and federal law.