September 24, 2013

Marijuana activist sees Maine following in Colorado's footsteps

Rob Kampia, leader of the Marijuana Policy Project, says a key legalization vote will be in Portland this November.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The leader of a national group pushing to legalize marijuana around the country is in Maine this week to lay the groundwork for legalization efforts here.

The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project has made Maine one of 10 states in which the group is looking to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana use by people age 21 and older in 2016.

And it sees the possibility of a big step forward this November, when Portland voters will consider an ordinance that would remove all penalties for adult possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

"(Portland's effort) starts the debate the same way Denver started the debate in Colorado," said Rob Kampia, the group's co-founder and executive director.

Colorado last year became one of two states to approve legalization, nearly eight years after Denver did it at the city level.

Kampia will spend three days in Maine, meeting with medical marijuana dispensary owners and caregivers, as well as media outlets, legislators and potential political donors in Portland, Augusta, Bangor and Down East.

In an interview with the Press Herald, he noted the similarities among legalization efforts in Maine and Colorado.

Maine is one of 16 U.S. states that have decriminalized marijuana possession, which means someone caught with up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal use (and not packegd for sale) will be issued a summons much like a parking ticket, and will not be arrested.

Marijuana was also decriminalized in Colorado in 2005, when Denver voted to go one step further and remove all civil penalties for possession by adults. In 2012, voters statewide voted to legalize the drug.

"We look at Maine as being on a similar track as Colorado, only here we hope the trajectory will be three years rather than eight," Kampia said.

Marijuana is currently illegal under federal law. Earlier this month, however, the Justice Department announced that it would not sue Washington state or Colorado over plans to tax and regulate pot sales for adults as long as the states adhere to federal priorities, such as preventing drugged driving and keeping marijuana away from kids and off the black market.

In Maine, voters legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes in 1999 and approved the sale of medical marijuana by regulated dispensaries in 2009.

The Maine Legislature, meanwhile, has rejected two proposals to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. During the last legislative session, a proposal by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, to put the legalization question to voters failed by four votes in the House and 17 votes in the Senate.

The Marijuana Policy Project will continue its efforts to persuade the Legislature to legalize recreational marijuana. If those efforts are not successful, the group will spearhead a statewide petition effort to let voters decide in 2016, Kampia said.

The group's Maine political director, David Boyer, said the state's marijuana advocates are gaining momentum, in part because of the new federal guidance to pro-legalization states. "We have the wind at our backs," Boyer said.

Some public health advocates have said they fear the effort to legalize adult use could send the wrong message to young people, who are more susceptible to the drug's harmful effects. And some in the law enforcement community have expressed reservations, while stopping short of outright opposition.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Monday that if voters approve the ordinance in November, it will have no practical effect on police priorities because state law will not change.

"As police chief, I would never advise or give guidance to our officers that we should circumvent state or federal laws," Sauschuck said. "This ordinance would have no impact" on local policing.

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