A push to legalize recreational marijuana in two Maine cities ended in a split result Tuesday, with voters in South Portland narrowly approving an ordinance in support of legalization and Lewiston residents soundly rejecting the idea.
In South Portland, residents voted 6,326 to 5,755 in favor of an ordinance that declares it legal for adults to possess small amounts of the drug. Lewiston residents rejected a similar ordinance by a vote of 7,366 to 6,044.
Citizen-initiated referendum questions in both cities asked voters to pass ordinances declaring it legal for adults over 21 years old to possess small amounts of marijuana for private, recreational use.
The Lewiston and South Portland votes are seen largely as symbolic because marijuana possession remains illegal under state and federal law, and local police say enforcement won’t change. But the outcomes will serve as indicators of the state’s appetite for legalization, and whether a future statewide referendum on the question might add Maine to the legalization movement.
“We’re happy that South Portland residents have chosen a policy based on facts not fear,” said David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is leading the legalization movement in the state.
South Portland approved the measure 52 percent to 48 percent.
Boyer said he anticipated the vote would be close in Lewiston, where the measure fell 55 percent to 45 percent. While disappointing, it will not slow the push to get the issue on the statewide ballot in 2016, he said.
Portland residents voted 2-1 in favor of legalizing recreational use of pot in 2013 – the first such vote by any city on the East Coast. This gave advocates a powerful boost to start the statewide campaign. But the movement has faced stronger opposition as it moved beyond the state’s largest and most politically liberal city.
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the cultural sentiment has shifted in favor of legalization. Residents of Oregon and Alaska were voting Tuesday on whether to follow Colorado and Washington, states that legalized marijuana in 2012. Residents of Washington, D.C., voted Tuesday to legalize pot for recreational use.
Last year was the first that a clear majority of Americans – 58 percent – supported legalization in an annual survey. When the Gallup polling company first asked the question in 1969, only 12 percent favored legalization. The New York Times, in an editorial last summer, supported allowing states to legalize marijuana use, arguing that the war on drugs has failed when it comes to pot.
Advocates in Maine and other states argue that legalization is smart policy that would raise tax revenue, allow law enforcement to focus on more serious crime and undercut violent drug cartels.
In South Portland and Lewiston, legalization advocates centered their campaigns on the argument that marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol and that regulation would take the drug off the black market and limit access to young people.
But opponents bristled at those claims, saying marijuana use contributes to other social problems and its normalization sends a dangerous message to teens that the drug is safe to use.
Scott Gagnon, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, said opponents are happy with the Lewiston vote and will shift their focus to fighting legalization on the state level.
“I think a split decision is better than it passing in both,” he said.
The votes in South Portland and Lewiston are part of the Marijuana Policy Project’s strategy to get marijuana legalized in a dozen states by 2016. Maine, where medicinal marijuana use has been legal for years, is seen as fertile ground for the movement.
Boyer said he believed the idea has wide support across the state. He said Maine has a “libertarian streak” and many Mainers feel it is time to end the prohibition on marijuana.
Months after Portland voted in November 2013 to legalize recreational use, the Marijuana Policy Project began collecting signatures to get similar proposals on the ballot in South Portland, Lewiston and York. Boyer said the communities were chosen because they represent a wide spectrum of Mainers. A judge backed a decision by the York Board of Selectmen to keep the issue off the ballot there.
South Portland has “no trouble charting new territory,” as evidenced by its ban on tar sands oil, Boyer said. Proponents wanted to test the waters in Lewiston to see how Franco-Americans – who supported the statewide medical marijuana initiative in 2009 – feel about recreational use.
The shifting attitudes toward the drug allowed some local and state officials to come out publicly in support of legalization.
Lewiston city councilors Leslie Dubois and Donald D’Auteuil and school board member Matthew Roy signed the petition to put the question on the ballot in that city.
In Lewiston, along with outspoken opposition from the mayor, the school board passed a resolution opposing legalization. In South Portland, both city councilors and school board members passed similar resolutions.
Voters outside of the South Portland Community Center on Tuesday afternoon expressed mixed feelings about the referendum.
Meadow Collins said she “definitely” voted in favor of legalization. That question and a referendum on bear hunting were the two issues she was most focused on this election season, she said.
When it comes to marijuana use, “I think people should have a choice whether they do it or not,” she said. “People are going to do it anyway.”
Julie Land said she voted against the ordinance, but felt torn on the issue because she supports some of the ideas behind the push for legalization.
“Until it’s legal everywhere, it sets an odd precedent,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s something that should be done on the city level.”
South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins, who spoke out against the ordinance, said he was surprised but not disappointed with the outcome. He said his officers will continue to enforce state law.
“Obviously I am disappointed, but I understand there has been over the past decade or two some very different beliefs in the use of marijuana,” he said. “We’ll see how this plays out.”