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Proponents of legalized pot see Portland vote as launch pad

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Proponents of legalized pot see Portland vote as launch pad

PORTLAND — Voters will decide Nov. 5 whether the city will join a growing number of states and municipalities that have legalized marijuana.

A citizen-initiated referendum will determine if the city allows adults over age 21 to use pot for recreation and to possess up to 2.5 ounces of the drug.

That's about enough to fill two sandwich baggies, or for 100 or so joints.

The referendum lets landlords ban marijuana use in their buildings. Its sale would remain illegal, and use or possession would still be illegal in public spaces and on buses and school grounds.

The City Council in July rejected a similar ordinance proposed by the citizens' initiative, prompting the question of legalization to be put on the November ballot.

David Boyer, state political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the referendum will pass.

The MPP, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., is part of a broad coalition, Citizens for a Safer Portland, that in May submitted a petition with 3,000 voter signatures to begin the initiative.

The coalition says current law unfairly stigmatizes marijuana users and is inconsistent with rules allowing alcohol – which, the coalition claims, carries greater health dangers.

"Both alcohol and marijuana can be used responsibly. But we celebrate alcohol, which is more dangerous, so there's obviously some hypocrisy regarding the two substances," Boyer said.

Boyer and others also claim law enforcement resources could be better spent on more serious infractions than recreational pot use.

"Law enforcement should be going after more pressing issues," he said. At the July council meeting, Oami Amarasingham, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the state spends $8.8 million annually on enforcing marijuana laws.

Mixed message?

But some people have concerns about the impact of legalization.

A Portland-based group, 21 Reasons, "has decided not to take a stand one way or another" on the referendum, project manager Jo Morrissey said on Friday. Nevertheless, the ballot question's passage would "absolutely send a mixed message" to young people, for whom marijuana poses different risks than for adults, she said.

The group, which works to prevent underage drinking and drug use by youth, says that marijuana and alcohol are both dangerous, especially to the developing brains of children and teens. Downplaying the danger of pot by comparing it to alcohol can be misleading and results in increased use by minors, Morrissey said.

That concern has led her to criticize how the MPP is encouraging passage of the referendum.

Earlier this month, the MPP launched an ad campaign promoting passage of the ballot question. The campaign includes posters on METRO buses and bus shelters showing clean-cut adults who explain why they prefer marijuana to alcohol – for example, because pot use doesn't cause hangovers.

Morrissey called the campaign, which will continue through Election Day, "unfortunate, reckless and irresponsible." She also claimed it violates METRO's policy of refusing ads for illegal or tobacco-related products.

"Those ads cross the line into promoting the use of marijuana. That's a promotion of a product; that is not a persuasive argument to vote a certain way," Morrissey said. "I'm all for free speech, and I'm really not against the referendum. I'm against the message it sends to youth."

Boyer, however, said legalizing adult use of marijuana would allow it to be regulated and more effectively kept out of the hands of people under 21. And he has defended the ads as constitutionally protected, political free speech.

Shielding youth from the ads' message, he said, is pointless.

"We need to be honest with our children about the facts and relative harms of the two most-used substances in our society," he said. "Otherwise, it's a disservice to the kids we're trying to educate."

Legal limbo

If Portland legalizes pot as a result of the referendum, it's not clear how the new city law would be affected by state and federal regulations.

Under Maine law, possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana is a civil offense, much like a minor traffic violation. (Possessing small amounts for physician-approved medical use is legal.) Offenders can be fined, but aren't jailed and don't get a criminal record.

Possessing small amounts of pot for recreational use is also decriminalized in 14 other states; Vermont, the most recent to do so, made it a civil offense in June. The states of Colorado and Washington last year fully legalized recreational sale and possession.

But marijuana is illegal under federal law, which classifies pot in the same category that includes heroin and LSD. The Justice Department, however, recently said it won't try to pre-empt state laws, and that federal enforcement will focus on priorities such as large-scale trafficking and keeping the drug away from children.

Passing the referendum won't change the way Portland police enforce marijuana prohibitions, Chief Michael Sauschuck has said publicly. Boyer said he is "disappointed" by the chief's stance.

"It's disappointing that the police have said, even before the referendum, that they're going to disregard the will of Portland voters. (The police) have things a little backwards," he said. "But they can use discretion. Hopefully they'll do the right thing."

As Portland goes ...

Across the country, cities and towns have sometimes found themselves at odds with shifting laws on marijuana, or at least their spirit.

In Massachusetts, which approved medical marijuana use in 2012, about a third of the commonwealth's 351 municipalities have imposed moratoriums on marijuana dispensaries. And since Colorado legalized pot last year, dozens of communities there have passed laws banning the sale of marijuana within city and town boundaries.

Sometimes municipalities have inspired statewide changes.

Nearly a year before Vermont decriminalized pot, voters in the state's largest city, Burlington, overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution calling for legalization. And in Colorado, the city of Denver started the push for statewide legalization in 2005 by allowing possession of small amounts of the drug.

Now Boyer is hoping Portland's referendum will spark a similar movement in Maine.

"We're hoping (the Portland referendum) can change the state," he said. "I don't think a patchwork quilt is the best way to handle marijuana policy for the state or the country, but we want to use Portland to get other legislators on board and to further the discussion."

Earlier this year, state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, sponsored a bill to legalize and tax recreational marijuana. While the bill was easily killed in committee, Russell then led an attempt in June to put the question to a statewide referendum. That effort failed in the House by just four votes.

The MPP may also launch local citizens' initiatives in Biddeford, Lewiston and northern Maine, Boyer added.

Portland voters can cast ballots from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 11 polling locations, which are listed on the city's website. Absentee ballots can be requested from the City Clerk's office before 4:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 31, and must be returned by mail, fax or hand-delivery by the time the polls close.

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