The head of a marijuana legalization campaign that failed to qualify for Maine’s November ballot said Thursday that his group is preparing to appeal the state’s ruling that 17,000 petition signatures were invalid.

An opponent of legal pot, meanwhile, is calling for a criminal investigation of the group’s petitions and signatures.

David Boyer, manager of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said the group is consulting with its legal advisers and plans to file an appeal within the 10 days allowed by law.

“We think they’ve made a big error in judgment,” he said.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap announced that the marijuana legalization citizens’ initiative failed to qualify for the ballot because it fell short by nearly 10,000 signatures. In his decision, Dunlap cited irregularities with signatures on the petitions and potential forgery, as well as signatures from a large number of people who are not registered voters. The marijuana legalization group had hired a Lewiston company to collect the signatures.

A leading opponent of the legalization effort responded Thursday by calling for the attorney general to investigate the signature-gathering operation of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

“SAM Maine strongly supports Maine’s citizens’ referendum process. However, we also strongly believe that the integrity of the process must be protected,” said Scott Gagnon, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Maine. “With out-of-state organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project coming into our state trying to influence and change our laws, it is paramount that these operations are held accountable if they violate ethics regulations.”

DISPUTE OVER ONE DISQUALIFIED SIGNATURE

Dunlap said his office consulted with the attorney general during its review of the campaign’s petition documents, but a decision to request a criminal investigation won’t be made until after the 10-day appeal period. The petitions are not released publicly while there is potential for appeal.

Appeals of petition rulings – which are heard in Superior Court – are rare in Maine, Dunlap said. The last appeal of a secretary of state’s rejection of a petition effort was in the 1990s, he said. That appeal involved a procedural dispute about filing deadlines rather than a state claim about potential forgery, he said.

Dunlap said Wednesday that the marijuana legalization question didn’t qualify for the November ballot because the campaign only provided 51,543 valid signatures, well short of the 61,123 required.

Although the pro-legalization group appeared to have more than enough signatures when the petitions were handed over to the state, more than 31,000 signatures on 20,761 separate petitions were deemed invalid. Dunlap said the signatures of some petition circulators and notaries didn’t match signatures the state had on file, so those petitions were not counted.

Notaries must sign petitions after witnessing the petitioner’s signature and verifying that the petition circulator is who they claim to be. One person whose signature was disqualified during the state review was listed as the notary on 5,099 petitions containing 26,779 of the 31,338 disqualified voter signatures.

“For them to throw out every signature from this notary doesn’t make sense to us,” Boyer said. “The signature on file (with the state) and the ones on the petition look close. We’re going to fight for these signatures.”

Both Dunlap and Boyer declined to provide the name of the notary whose signature is being questioned, citing the legal case that will result from the appeal.

Dunlap said that although there were problems with one notary who signed a large number of petitions, there also were questions about the signatures of other notaries and circulators.

“That notary was not alone. We had a handful of notaries where there appeared to be systemic issues with how their work was being performed,” he said. “We’re looking for reasons to validate signatures, not invalidate them. The entire process hinges on the integrity of the oath (to the notary) that the circulator actually witnessed the signatures. If there are questions about the signatures and you can’t get those answered, it becomes a vertical disqualification of the entire petition.”

Dunlap has said many of the irregularities were from circulators paid or contracted by Olympic Consulting, a Lewiston firm led by former state legislator Stavros Mendros. The same company was linked to irregularities in a separate disqualified petition to open the door to a casino in York County.

Mendros didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday,

SOME SIGNATURES MAY BE VALID FOR 2017

Gagnon, the leader of the group opposing marijuana legalization, said he is troubled by the campaign’s petitions and called for an investigation.

“We are especially concerned with the nearly 14,000 signatures that didn’t match with a registered voter. This, along with apparently bogus notary signatures, calls into question the integrity of (the pro-marijuana group’s) entire signature-gathering process,” he said.

While Boyer said the legalization campaign is focused on fighting Dunlap’s decision in court and qualifying for the November ballot, there is a possibility the surviving petitions could be used to help qualify for a 2017 vote. Although it would be too late to gather more signatures for a November vote, the valid petitions could be the basis of a renewed petition drive to force a vote next year.

After the secretary of state issues petitions for a citizens’ initiative, campaigns have 18 months to collect the required number of signatures. However, signatures can’t be more than a year old, Dunlap said.

“They can continue to circulate and get more signatures and we would start the certification process over again,” Dunlap said. “I know there is some serious disappointment. I think some people are doing some soul-searching about how to proceed.”