SOUTH PORTLAND — Despite their general opposition, and as promised, city councilors Monday indicated they support letting voters decide whether the city should legalize marijuana. 

The City Council unanimously moved forward a citizen-initiated measure that would legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use by adults over age 21.

The proposed ordinance now goes to a public hearing and final action on Aug. 18.

Councilors, with Mayor Jerry Jalber absent, said they have few qualms with putting the decision in voters’ hands on Nov. 4, and consider their own action procedural.

“The question is whether or not we abide by the wishes of 1,100 of our residents,” Councilor Tom Blake said, referring to the number of people who signed petitions in favor of legalization. “We really have no choice this evening.”

The City Council had the option to adopt the proposal, reject it or move it to a referendum.

Organized by the Marijuana Policy Project, the grassroots petition needed only 959 signatures to qualify for the ballot. In less than two months, canvassers gathered 1,521 signatures (1,150 verified)

“We’re glad the City Council spoke officially that they’re going to put it on the November ballot, and we look forward to having public debate on this issue,” David Boyer, Maine’s political director for MPP, said after the vote Monday.

After recreational possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana was legalized for adults over 21 in Portland last year, MPP launched an effort to create similar citizen initiatives in South Portland, Lewiston and York. 

Opponents and supporters have noted the municipal efforts are more symbollic of public opinion as part of the greater effort toward state legalization, since state and federal laws against recreational pot render them mostly unenforceable.

But legalization measures on multiple ballots in November would provide a gauge of local attitudes, and, if approved, could set the stage for a statewide initiative in 2016. 

In early June, the City Council held a press conference announcing its opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana and unanimously passed a non-binding resolution declaring opposition.

Councilors and other city officials have said they oppose legal recreational marijuana use because it presents few benefits to the community, and sets a negative example for children.

While two states have voted to legalize the drug, officials said they find the “normalization” of its use correlates to a worrisome increase in minors smoking pot. Citing surveys of South Portland students from 2009 to 2013, Police Lt. Frank Clark said the number who said they had recently used marijuana has increased 15 percent. 

Scott Gagnon, state director for opposition group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, rejected the claim of many supporters that the drug would be safer if sold legally in stores.

“Legalization creates more social access,” he told councilors. 

Supporters believe marijuana is not as dangerous as alcohol, and punishing adults for possessing small amounts of the drug is a waste of time for police and the courts. Residents who spoke in favor of the petition called for a more realistic approach to drug policy.

“To say ‘We don’t need (marijuana) here’ suggests we don’t have it here now,” former City Councilor Rosemarie DeAngelis, the Democratic candidate in state House District 33, said in response to another resident’s comment.

In York, the Board of Selectmen recently refused to place a similar citizen-initiated question on legalization on the town ballot, on the grounds that it would preempt state and federal law.

Boyer said Monday his coalition is in the process of trying to override the York decision, by gathering nearly 650 additional signatures. The deadline to qualify for the November ballot is Aug. 27.  

He said he expects to submit more than 1,000 signatures in Lewiston by Friday. 

Regardless of support or opposition, Blake said, MPP picked the city for a reason, and the council has a duty to let their voters decide.

“Like York and Lewiston, we’re progressive, we’re leaders in the state,” he said. “The backers of this initiative want the pulse of our community.”

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.

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