The group pushing for a November referendum on marijuana legalization will submit its signatures to the secretary of state Monday, paving the way for a decision on whether Maine should join the growing number of states to accept recreational use of the drug.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which backs a bill that would allow adults 21 and older to possess marijuana, said Sunday that it had collected 103,115 signatures in its quest to become the first East Coast state to legalize pot for recreational use. The campaign must submit 61,123 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
“Over the past six months, we’ve talked to tens of thousands of voters from all over the state,” said David Boyer, manager of the marijuana campaign. “Most Mainers agree it is time to end the failed policy of marijuana prohibition and they will have the opportunity to do this in November.”
The push for a legalization vote began with two competing measures, but the campaigns backing them united behind one proposal in October. Advocates were concerned that having two similar proposals on the ballot would create confusion among voters and possibly split the vote.
Boyer said the confusion seemed to dissipate once the campaigns merged. The campaign collected around 20,000 signatures on Election Day in November, he said.
The legalization bill being proposed would allow adults to possess up to 2½ ounces of marijuana and to cultivate a limited number of plants. Adults would be prohibited from using marijuana in public, with violations punished by a $100 fine. The bill also places a sales tax of 10 percent on retail marijuana and marijuana products.
“Most people are receptive,” Boyer said. “If they haven’t made their mind up, they still see the merit of having the conversation and putting it to a vote.”
He said the response from voters was especially supportive in rural communities.
“They want to see businesses create new, good-paying jobs, while letting law enforcement tackle the real problems in our state,” he said.
Scott Gagnon, spokesman for Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, which led the opposition to campaigns to legalize recreational marijuana in South Portland and Lewiston in 2014, said Sunday night that he expects the statewide legalization vote to be close but “we ultimately expect it to fail.”
Legalization passed narrowly in South Portland in 2014 and lost by 10 points in Lewiston, a Democratic stronghold, he noted.
“If it can’t succeed in Lewiston, it is going to have a real tough time as you go north and east,” Gagnon said in an email.
He said voters can expect to see an organized opposition group being formed, but declined to be more specific.
PROPOSAL, TIMING CRITICIZED
Gagnon said he finds it troubling that under the proposed legislation, recreational marijuana would be licensed and regulated by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
“No knock against state employees who work for that department, but they simply will not have the proper background to regulate a drug. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has become the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Potatoes.”
Gagnon said the recreational pot supporters have chosen a bad time to present their proposal to voters.
“The last thing we should be doing amidst an addiction crisis is to increase access to an addictive substance. That is what this initiative would do,” he said. “Putting pot shops in Maine communities will make it that much easier for youth to get access to marijuana. When one in six youths who use marijuana develop an addiction, this is an absolute tone-deaf policy proposal in the middle of our addiction crisis.”
Maine has allowed medicinal marijuana use since 1999. If the state legalizes recreational marijuana, it will join a small number of Western states that allow adults to buy and possess the drug.
Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., have passed laws legalizing recreational pot despite the federal prohibition. Legalization referendums or legislation are expected to be considered this year in Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Gagnon said reports coming out of Colorado are disturbing. He said Colorado has seen increases in marijuana-related fatal car crashes, emergency room admissions, and a rapid increase in poisonings of young children who mistook marijuana edibles for candy.
Citing data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Gagnon said Colorado is now No. 1 in the nation for rate of marijuana use among children between the ages of 12 and 17. In 2006, Colorado had been ranked 16th.
A local ordinance making it legal for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana also was approved by voters in Portland in 2013. But the votes in Portland and South Portland are largely symbolic because law enforcement agencies say they will continue to enforce state and federal laws.
A poll in the spring of 2015 by Critical Insights, a Portland market research firm, found that 65 percent of Mainers support legalizing marijuana. If it is legalized, 79 percent of people believe it should only be sold in licensed establishments, according to the poll. A Gallup poll released in January shows 58 percent of adults in the United States think pot should be legal, up from 51 percent in October 2014.
A LOT OF MONEY AT STAKE
Last year, Mainers spent $23.6 million on medical marijuana from the state’s eight dispensaries, a 46 percent jump from the previous year. Those numbers don’t include sales to patients from the more than 2,200 caregivers licensed to grow and sell marijuana. Officials from Wellness Connection, which operates four dispensaries in Maine, estimate the state could take in $26.7 million in revenue from taxes and fees per year if voters decide to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has collected more than $334,000 in contributions, including $228,000 since October, according to its most recent campaign finance report. The campaign spent the majority of that money – about $330,000 – on operating expenses such as paying signature collectors.
The largest financial contributors include the Marijuana Policy Project, which backed efforts to legalize pot in Colorado and other states, as well as political groups that advocate for legalization and drug reform. The Marijuana Policy Project contributed more than $15,000 in cash, but also donated nearly $28,000 in in-kind donations for staff time and information technology costs. The New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes drug policy reform, donated $50,000 to the campaign in that reporting period, according to the finance report.
New Approach Political Action Committee of Washington, D.C., donated a combined $105,000 from October through December, according to the report.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.