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South Portland officials oppose pot legalization

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South Portland officials oppose pot legalization

SOUTH PORTLAND — City officials on Monday sent a strong message against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

In response to a citizen initiative organized by the Marijuana Policy Project to get legalization on the city's November ballot, officials held a press conference in Mill Creek Park to voice their firm opposition.

"There's a certain danger to this drug, and we really are concerned about this very much," Mayor Jerry Jalbert said.

Later, in their Monday evening meeting, city councilors unanimously passed a non-binding resolution that also opposed legalization. Jalbert and Councilor Tom Blake were absent. 

Supporters of recreational pot use were not happy.

"We’re completely disheartened to see the council go out of its way to oppose an initiative that most Mainers would agree with," David Boyer, Maine's political director for MPP, said after the press conference. 

After recreational marijuana possession 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.

Some say Portland's pot policy conflicts with state and federal laws, but its passage by 67 percent of voters showed strong support.

"We want to continue the public conversation, as well as show that this isn't something exclusive to Portland," Boyer said. "Portland has maybe a bit of a reputation for being liberal, but we want to show that there’s support throughout the state."

Boyer said the group will begin gathering signatures this week, and be at primary polling stations in South Portland on June 10. His goal is to gather more than 1,000 signatures. 

Joining Jalbert at the conference were Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin, Police Chief Ed Googins, Joanne Grant of Day One rehabilitation center, and City Councilors Michael Pock and Maxime Beecher.

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

Googins said he worries about the dangers of the drug's increasing potency, and warned that, despite popular belief, "marijuana is not safer than alcohol."

"These statements are contrary to the studies, and are contrary to my observations and experiences in over 40 years of police service," he said at the conference.

Beecher said after the meeting that a group of city department heads and a few councilors have been meeting informally to address the legalization initiative. She said the group will continue to meet this summer as MPP launches its campaign.

"I’m not sure what we’ll end up doing, but it's not over," she said.

Boyer rejected Googins' comparison of the dangers of marijuana and alcohol, and said police efforts should not be focused on the drug.

"We think law enforcement has bigger fish to fry in Maine and in South Portland," he said. "Going after an adult who uses marijuana in the privacy of their home isn't the best way to spend law enforcement's precious time and resources."

Looking back to last November, Boyer recalled that Portland officials were less proactive than South Portland in their opposition leading to the vote, and guessed that its passage put city officials on their toes.

"Maybe they didn’t think we were going to pass last time, and maybe they see it as real and that there is real support for it," he said. 

Rachel Healy, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, expressed the group's disappointment with the City Council's decision. 

"Our main concern is that, around the state, people are having a conversation about more humane and more sensible drug policy, and we’re concerned that the South Portland City Council is trying to shut down that conversation before we can even have it here," she said.

The resolution passed Monday is not legally binding, and should the petition garner enough signatures, councilors said they will not impede the question from getting on the ballot. 

Despite the harsh opposition from several officials, Councilors Patti Smith and Linda Cohen indicated their openness to continuing the conversation.

"I recognize there are many sides to this story, and I look forward to more dialogue," Smith said. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.