The group hoping to legalize marijuana in Maine has given up its campaign to put the issue on the ballot in York, leaving South Portland and Lewiston as the only communities in the state facing votes on marijuana legalization this November.

The Marijuana Policy Project said Friday it will not appeal a Superior Court decision that allowed York to become the first community in the state to reject citizen petitions calling for a referendum on the legalization of recreational marijuana use.

York County Superior Court Justice Paul Fritzsche sided last month with York’s Board of Selectmen, which twice rejected citizen petitions calling on it to send a proposed marijuana legalization ordinance to voters in November. The judge ruled that legalization advocates, led by the Marijuana Policy Project, were asking the town to approve something it cannot regulate because marijuana use is governed by state and federal law, not local ordinances.

Unlike in some communities, York’s town charter has a clause allowing the Board of Selectmen to reject a petition that is “not lawful.”

The votes in South Portland and Lewiston, and the failed bid in York, are part of a strategy by legalization advocates to gauge public sentiment and build momentum for a potential statewide vote in 2016.

City councilors in the two cities accepted citizen petitions and were bound to either adopt the ordinance or put the question to voters. Both communities will vote Nov. 4.

The campaign to get the question on ballots in the three communities followed a November 2013 vote in Portland that made the city the first on the East Coast to declare recreational marijuana use legal for adults.

Legalization advocates said they targeted York, South Portland and Lewiston because they represented a wide spectrum of voters.

Lewiston, for example, was chosen in part because of its Franco-American population. York was chosen in part because of what advocates said was a relatively high number of citations for marijuana possession issued to adults 21 and older. York police issued 174 citations in 2010, 80 in 2011, 139 in 2012 and 96 in 2013.

Friday was the deadline to appeal the decision regarding York’s referendum. While it was too late to force a referendum there on Nov. 4 as originally planned, an appeal would have kept open the possibility of a special referendum at a later date. The Marijuana Policy Project withdrew its case this week.

David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, characterized the situation in York as a “speed bump” that will not deter supporters seeking to end marijuana prohibition in Maine.

“We’re confident an appeal would be successful, but at this point we cannot afford to continue playing this game with the selectmen,” Boyer said. “We know there is support for ending marijuana prohibition in York, and we’re going to focus our resources on giving them a chance to vote on it in 2016 with a statewide ballot initiative.”

Citizens for a Safer Maine, with support from the Marijuana Policy Project, collected more than 200 signatures from registered York voters and submitted them to selectmen in July. After the board voted 3-2 against putting the question on the ballot, the group collected an additional 641 signatures and brought the measure before the board a second time, receiving the same outcome.

Supporters said the large number of signatures collected on the petitions show there is support in town for legalizing marijuana. The number of signatures required to bring the petition before the board a second time needed to exceed one-tenth of the ballots cast in the last gubernatorial election in the town of about 12,500 residents.

“It’s unfortunate that three out of the five selectmen have needlessly and very likely illegally prevented their constituents from voting on this measure,” Boyer said. “It’s a disservice to the voters who elected them, and they’ll have to live with that.”

During an emergency court hearing on Sept. 19, Justice Fritzsche said the petitioners were asking the town to hold a vote on something it has no power to regulate.

“It’s really not a lawful topic,” he said. “It’s not one that is the area of governance for the municipality.”

Unlike in South Portland and Lewiston, the York town charter requires selectmen to schedule referendums only on proposed ordinances that are “lawful.”

Stephen Burns, York’s interim town manager, said the case “represents an important step for the selectmen in upholding the town charter.”

“They saw an ordinance they didn’t think was legal and the court validated that decision,” he said. “I think the direction for the petitioners is to go to Augusta, where I think they should have gone to begin with.”

Scott Gagnon, who leads Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, said he was not surprised the petitioners dropped the court case. Members of his group will continue to speak out against legalization efforts in Lewiston and South Portland, as well as at the state level.

“We’re glad to see that York is out of the target. The folks I’ve been working with in York are pleased with that,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a sigh of relief, though everyone is very cognizant of a 2016 referendum. It’s a quick pause, but then right back at it before too long.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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