City Council puts legal recreational use of marijuana in Portland voters' hands

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PORTLAND — Voters will get to decide on Nov. 5 whether the city should legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults.

The City Council on Monday decided, 5-1, to table a proposed ordinance that would allow people over 21 to possess up to 2.5 ounces of the drug for recreational use.

Councilor David Marshall cast the lone dissenting vote.

The vote was prompted by a citizen-led initiative earlier this year to create a city referendum on the proposal. Proponents submitted 2,500 signatures in a petition to the city supporting the ordinance, more than the 1,500 signatures required to get it on a ballot.

After rejecting the proposal, the council was required to either propose an alternative ordinance or to set a date for the referendum. The council voted 5-1 to place it on the November ballot, with Councilor John Coyne opposed.

The votes were preceded by a public hearing where councilors heard wide-ranging opinions about the dangers of marijuana and whether a city ordinance legalizing it would be trumped by state and federal pot prohibitions.

Maine law prohibits possession of marijuana except when used for some medical purposes. The state spends $8.8 million annually on enforcing marijuana laws, said Oami Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

Proponents of the ordinance said that money could be better spent elsewhere.

“Law enforcement should save its precious money and time for more important things,” said David Boyer, state political director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Congress Street resident Jim Devine said “Addressing a health issue by sending people to prison is counterproductive.”

Coyne was unconvinced by the arguments in favor of the ordinance.

“The bottom line for me is, if it’s illegal don’t do it,” he said, calling the ordinance “not ready for prime time” because he believes it doesn’t fully take into account the potential legal conflicts or loss of state or federal funding.

Holm Avenue resident Robert Haines shared that concern, saying the proposal would be difficult to enforce for police, who are bound to uphold state law.

“Where does (the ordinance) put our Police Department? What do they do, violate their oath?” Haines asked.

But Councilor David Marshall, who spoke earlier in the day at a press conference in support of the ordinance, said there is already a conflict between state and federal law over the medical use of marijuana, and that such a conflict shouldn’t prevent the city from passing its own law.

He called the ordinance a “controlled approach” in keeping with the “mainstream” opinions of Americans.

“No one’s ever died from a lethal amount of pot,” Marshall told the council. “Factually, (marijuana) is safer than alcohol. It doesn’t make logical sense for it to be illegal.”

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