The Lewiston City Council voted unanimously Monday night to schedule a vote Nov. 4 on a proposal to legalize recreational use of marijuana in the city.
The council had the option of approving the proposed ordinance change, but decided to send the question directly to voters. Lewiston is the second city to schedule a vote on marijuana legalization for November, along with South Portland.
Citizens for a Safer Maine submitted a petition with the signatures of 863 registered voters calling for the legalization of as much as an ounce of marijuana for anyone 21 or older.
“We’re excited the city council is sending it to voters to let them decide if adults should be punished for using marijuana in the privacy of their own homes,” said David Boyer, Maine director of the Marijuana Policy Project, the group leading the legalization effort.
None of the Lewiston councilors spoke on the issue before voting, and no one from the public commented.
The South Portland City Council voted unanimously last month to send the same proposal to voters in November, but not before councilors said they don’t support the measure. The council had already passed a resolution against legalizing recreational marijuana use.
The York Board of Selectmen is expected to take up the issue again as soon as Sept. 8, after voting in July not to send the question to voters. Supporters collected additional signatures to bring the issue back to the board for a second time. If rejected again, 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.
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.
If the ballot measures are approved in the three Maine 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.
Scott Gagnon, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, said the proposal “comes at a time when community leaders are working hard to improve education and the local economy.” He said he expects Lewiston residents to reject the proposal.
“Legalizing marijuana would take us in the wrong direction,” Gagnon said.
Boyer, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said the proposal seems to have support in Lewiston and other communities.
“While collecting signatures we encountered a lot of interest in exploring alternatives to prohibition,” he said. “People are sick of hearing about adults getting punished for using a less harmful substance than alcohol.”