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Marijuana legalization vote all but certain in South Portland

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Marijuana legalization vote all but certain in South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — Marijuana legalization has moved a step closer to a referendum question on the city's November ballot. 

Supporters of legal, recreational pot submitted more than 1,500 signatures from like-minded city residents to the city clerk on Monday, July 14, after holding a brief press conference outside City Hall.

The clerk has 20 days to verify the signatures, and is expected to submit the referendum question to the City Council for its Aug. 4 meeting. 

Mayor Jerry Jalbert on Monday said councilors, who have already expressed their opposition to legalization, believe it is important to move the petition forward to a city vote.

"We're opposed, but we're not going to obstruct," he said.

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 from residents in favor of legalizing possession of one ounce of marijuana by adults over age 21. 

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.

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. 

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 local police and a strain on taxpayers. 

Melissa Thomas, a mother and resident of Scamman Street, submitted the signatures for the coalition. She said when she knocked on doors for petition signatures, the positive response was "overwhelming."

"Common sense prevailed," Thomas said. 

Other canvassers agreed.

"It was shockingly easy," Morgan Cooper, of Portland, said Monday of her experience collecting signatures at South Portland polling stations during the June primary election. "I just let people come to me."

Shenna Bellows, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, also attended the press conference Monday. She pledged her support for pot legalization and criminal justice reform for drug-related offenses. 

"The war on drugs has failed," Bellows said. "We need a different approach."

A representative for her opponent, incumbent U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, declined comment on a local pot referendum. But historically, Collins has neither openly opposed nor supported marijuana legalization. 

In the other target municipalities, petitioners have gathered the necessary signatures in York, with a public hearing scheduled July 28. David Boyer, Maine's political director for the MPP, said the Lewiston campaign is halfway to gathering the required 859 signatures. 

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