SOUTH PORTLAND — Voters, who will decide Nov. 4 whether to legalize recreational marijuana in the city, can expect to be wooed in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
The City Council on Monday unanimously put a citizen-initiated measure on the Nov. 4 ballot to legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use by adults over age 21.
Despite their general opposition to legalizing non-medicinal pot in the city, most councilors justified their move as a procedural obligation.
“I feel as a city councilor I really have no choice,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said before casting her affirmative vote.
Organized by the Marijuana Policy Project, the grassroots petition needed only 959 signatures to qualify for the ballot. In less than two months, it attracted 1,521 signatures (1,150 verified).
With 10 weeks before Election Day, councilors called upon supporters and opponents of marijuana legalization to responsibly inform the public on the issue.
“I’d encourage both sides to get together to have public debates in good forums,” Councilor Tom Blake suggested.
David Boyer, Maine’s political director for MPP, said he welcomes public discussion, and said local venues have already been offered to host debates. Door-to-door campaigning with informational pamphlets, telephone canvassing, and television advertising are also likely avenues for the campaign.
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.
Although state and federal laws against recreational pot render city legalization mostly unenforceable, 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, city councilors held a press conference announcing their opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana and unanimously passed a non-binding resolution declaring their 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.
Police Lt. Frank Clark on Monday reiterated his concern to the council that the “normalization” of marijuana correlates with increased youth marijuana use.
“There’s nothing in this initiative that benefits the safety of this community,” Clark said.
Supporters of legalization said marijuana is not as dangerous as alcohol, and although the drug is decriminalized in Maine, adults are still punished for possessing small amounts, which they consider a waste of time for police and the courts.
“An adult using marijuana in their home is not a threat to society,” Boyer said.
In York, Boyer said his coalition, Citizens for a Safer Maine, is in the process of trying to override the Board of Selectmen’s refusal to place a similar citizen-initiated question on the town ballot by gathering nearly 650 additional signatures. The deadline to qualify for the York ballot is Aug. 27.
Boyer’s canvassers in Lewiston submitted more than 1,000 signatures earlier this month. The Lewiston City Council will consider putting it on the ballot in a meeting on Sept. 2.
After approving the marijuana question, councilors established a special legal fund specifically for defending the city’s recently enacted ban on tar sands oil against a possible lawsuit from Portland Pipe Line Corp.
City staff and councilors said in their last workshop they have received almost daily right-to-know requests from PPL attorney Matt Manahan since July 31, seeking all materials “relating in any way to the Waterfront Protection Ordinance and its progeny,” the Clear Skies Ordinance. They seek information from as far back as October 2013.
The CSO, the result of a year-long local initiative, is a collection of zoning amendments meant to prevent PPL from reversing the flow of its pipeline to Montreal for transport of Canadian tar sands to South Portland for export.
Councilors created the fund in hope that – if it attracts donations from sympathetic individuals, environmental groups, and law firms – the city could avoid using only tax revenue to defend the ordinance.
The city has not been sued. But Mayor Jerry Jalbert said PPL’s requests are already incurring legal fees and city staff are spending “an inordinate amount of time” responding to them.
“It’s not a surprise, but it is what it is,” Councilor Patti Smith said. “I think we’re being proactive.”
In other business, the City Council approved a $3.5 million bond question to go to voters on Nov. 4 that would fund long-term road and water improvements in Thornton Heights.
The city would use the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund program to finance the project with a federally subsidized interest rate. Work on the project, which is set to begin next year, cannot begin without the funding.
Councilors also authorized City Manager Jim Gailey to sell a tax-acquired property at 56 Washington Ave. by public auction. The abandoned property has an assessed value of $166,000.