The South Portland City Council made a symbolic, pre-emptive gesture Monday, opposing a campaign to legalize recreational use of marijuana by adults in the city.

Voting to approve a non-binding resolution 5-0, councilors roundly rejected what they said is a substance that poses a danger to public health, safety and the future of the city’s young people.

“It just isn’t a good thing for our community,” said Police Chief Ed Googins at a press conference Monday afternoon in Mill Creek Park. Legalizing marijuana “doesn’t increase our safety. It doesn’t make us more livable. It’s not something that will do good for us. The community’s safety and welfare are at stake.”

The campaign is being led by David Boyer of Maine’s chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project, which helped pass a ballot initiative last year in Portland that legalized recreational marijuana use in the city by people 21 or older.

Boyer’s group is targeting South Portland, Lewiston and York this year as the next Maine communities for ballot petitions urging legalization. Boyer says the petition campaign in South Portland is expected to begin this week.

Taken together, voting results in the test communities could be valuable indicators of how Mainers will view a statewide legalization effort.

Momentum to re-examine drug laws is likely to come to a head in 2016, when voters in Maine and other New England states are expected to take up recreational use at the polls. State and federal laws still prohibit marijuana.

“Why are we choosing to punish adults who choose something other than alcohol?” Boyer said, reiterating his group’s message from the Portland legalization campaign. “It’s disappointing that the (South Portland) City Council would go out of its way to continue a policy that most Mainers would agree has failed.”

The South Portland council’s non-binding resolution to oppose legalization of recreational – non-medical – marijuana sparked a lively debate at Monday night’s council meeting.

Councilors Maxine Beecher, Patti Smith, Linda Cohen, Melissa Linscott and Michael Pock voted to approve the resolution. Mayor Jerry Jalbert and Councilor Tom Blake did not attend the meeting.

The resolution cited a survey of South Portland High School students last year by Maine Integrated Youth Health Surveys, in which 27.5 percent of high school students said they used marijuana at least once in a 30-day period, compared with 21.6 percent for the rest of the state.

The resolution also cited a recent analysis by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found the potency of marijuana has reached its highest levels since scientific analysis of the drug began. The institute found that levels of THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of the cannabis plant, had risen from 4 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent in 2012.

“I have to say I am disappointed that you folks want the world to think that marijuana is safe. It’s not,” Beecher said.

She compared marijuana legalization to the cigarette campaigns and advertisements of years past, in which adults gave youths the impression that it was OK to smoke.

“The issue here is pretty much the same, but it’s even worse,” Beecher said. “The bottom line is that adults would be setting an example for teens, and I don’t think it’s a good example. Just because something passes in Portland doesn’t mean it has to pass here.”

Supporters of legalization argued that making possession of marijuana a crime only misdirects police resources toward something that most of the public doesn’t feel is a threat.

Grainne Dunn of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said her organization opposed the council’s resolution because keeping marijuana illegal contributes to racial profiling. Dunn said people of color in Maine are twice as likely as white people to be arrested for possession of marijuana.

“It has been shown over the years that the war on drugs is a failure,” Dunn said. “We need a more sensible and humane policy on drug use.”

Mark Diehl of Cape Elizabeth, running for the Senate District 29 seat as a Green Party candidate, urged the council to reject the resolution. He said most Maine voters support legalization.

“They don’t think the social costs justify the expenditure” of enforcing the law, he said.

Councilor Cohen said she could see both sides of the issue and noted that Monday’s resolution was non-binding. Cohen said there is nothing to prevent supporters of legalization to start a citizens initiative that would put the question before voters in November.

Looming large in the local debates are the experiences of Washington state and Colorado, where voters passed different versions of statewide legalization for recreational use. Already, Colorado is being cited by critics who say hard data will confirm the ills of the drug.

Googins, South Portland’s police chief, said more fatal traffic accidents in Colorado are being tied to drug use.

Overall, he said, marijuana is more potent than it was a generation or two ago, and with its growing popularity, even applicants to the police department have told him they have used it, a trend he did not see in decades past.

Much of the criticism leveled at legalization Monday focused on the drug’s effects on children.

Scott Gagnon of Maine’s Sensible Approach to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization, said Colorado has seen more youths bringing marijuana to school or dealing it there.

South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert, who initiated the resolution, said at the press conference, “There is a certain danger to this drug and we really are concerned about this very much.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]