PORTLAND — The city became the first on the East Coast to legalize the recreational use of marijuana Tuesday when voters approved a referendum by more than a 2-1 majority.

The local referendum, created by a citizens’ initiative earlier this year, asked if the city should allow adults over age 21 to use or possess up to 2.5 ounces of the drug.

The question received 9,921 “yes” votes, or 67 percent of the total, according to unofficial results late Tuesday night. Voters cast 4,823 “no” ballots.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m blown away. This sends a strong mandate,” state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said Tuesday night.

She and other proponents of the referendum had expected it to pass, but by a much more narrow margin.

“When you get up close to 70 (percent), that’s reflective of the will of the people. It spills over to the rest of the state,” she said.

Russell has led legalization efforts in the Legislature, including an attempt in June to put the question to a statewide referendum. That bill failed in the House by just four votes. Now, with the momentum of Portland’s vote behind her, Russell said she plans to reintroduce a legalization bill in January.

“It’s time for the politicians to do what voters are not asking, but demanding,” she said.

David Boyer, state political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, called the vote a “big win” and said he was also surprised, especially by the number of people who voted on the referendum: nearly 15,000.

“We thought the (voter turnout) would be closer to 10,000, and that the vote would be a little tighter,” he said.

An unofficial total of 17,875 voters – about 35 percent of those registered in the city – cast ballots, slightly less than the turnout in November 2011, the last off-year election, which drew 20,242 voters.

Despite the modest voting level, the turnout at some polling stations appeared to be driven by referendum supporters.

Outside the Munjoy Hill polls at East End Community School, voters were waiting in line at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“It’s been extraordinary,” precinct warden Denise Shames said. “We’ve had at least 1,000 (voters) and we still have two hours to go.”

Downtown at Merrill Auditorium, ward clerk Christopher Danse said he expected nearly 1,000 voters to cast ballots by the 8 p.m. deadline. In an off-year, he said, the turnout could be half that size.

“We have a couple things on the ballot that are bringing voters out,” Danse said.

Brendan Champagne was one of those voters. While he said he didn’t make a selection in the City Council races because “no one made an impression,” he voted “yes” on the referendum.

“People should be able to use (marijuana) recreationally, if the majority doesn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “And it would be a good move for the city; it’ll draw people here.”

Another voter, Dan Flynn, agreed, saying he didn’t vote in the City Council elections, but voted for marijuana legalization. He called the illegal status of pot a “drain on the city, a waste of time. … And it’s inhumane the way some people are treated for using something that’s basically harmless.”

But despite the enthusiasm for the referendum, questions and concerns remain.

For example, the ordinance created by the vote does nothing to change the supply of pot, since selling it remains illegal. Unlike Russell’s proposed legislation, the referendum did not propose a structure for taxing or regulating the drug. And it remains illegal in public spaces, buses, school grounds and apartment buildings where landlords don’t want it.

In addition, after initially enjoying almost no public opposition, the ordinance eventually came under attack by groups such as the Maine Public Health Association.

“If this addictive and cancer-causing substance becomes legalized, we can expect to see an increase in adverse health outcomes,” Doug Michael, the MPHA board president-elect, said last week.

Most of all, it’s not clear if the new law will be enforced after it takes effect in 30 days.

Although the recreational use of marijuana in Maine and 14 other states is only a civil offense, it’s still illegal. (Possessing small amounts for physician-approved medical use is legal.) Pot is also illegal under federal law, which classifies it in the same category as heroin and LSD.

The Justice Department, however, recently said it won’t try to pre-empt state laws, and that federal enforcement will focus on priorities such as large-scale trafficking and keeping the drug away from children.

Nevertheless, the referendum’s passage will not change the way Portland police enforce marijuana prohibitions, Chief Michael Sauschuck has said.

Boyer said he’s hopeful the strong show of support will convince the chief to think otherwise.

“We hope the city officials will respect the will of Portland voters, and we’re happy to work with (the officials) in implementing this ordinance,” he said. “This also provides more incentive for the state to take on the issue. Hopefully they’ll get in front of it and do the right thing.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

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