January 21

Push to legalize marijuana likely in more Maine communities

After a successful campaign in Portland, a national group will try to put the issue to voters in Lewiston, South Portland and York.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The battle over marijuana legalization could be coming to three more Maine communities this November.

A national organization that helped successfully campaign for legalization of recreational pot use in Portland last year plans to target Lewiston, South Portland and York this fall as it lays the groundwork for a statewide legalization campaign in 2016.

The Marijuana Policy Project plans to conduct petition drives to put the question to voters in the three communities in an effort to keep the legalization debate moving in Maine. The efforts could benefit from the higher voter turnout likely in an election for governor.

The group has not yet started the petition drives.

“We definitely want it to be an election issue,” David Boyer, Maine political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, told the Portland Press Herald on Monday. “We think voters should know where gubernatorial candidates stand on this issue, particularly because one of them is going to be governor in 2016 when it does pass (statewide).”

This coincides with a clear shift in attitude toward pot use among the public and politicians, including those in the White House.

In an interview published in The New Yorker this week, President Obama described marijuana use as “a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life.”

“I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” he said, echoing an argument frequently made by legalization advocates.

The president stopped well short of endorsing legalization, but said he is concerned that minorities are arrested at disproportionately high rates for pot violations. The Obama administration has said it will not interfere with laws in Colorado and Washington state that legalize recreational use as long as pot is not sold to minors or trafficked out of state.

“The experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge,” Obama said.

STRATEGIC CHOICES OF TOWNS

Legalization advocates see the political tide turning in their favor. Borrowing a page from the same-sex marriage playbook, they view New England as fertile ground and are gearing up for a 2016 referendum in Maine as well as ballot or legislative initiatives in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island.

Boyer said this year’s three local campaigns will attempt to build on the success in Portland – 67 percent of voters in November supported an ordinance legalizing possession by adults of up to 2.5 ounces of pot – and to “demonstrate that this has support around the state.”

Towns were chosen for both political and geographic reasons, Boyer said.

“We want to make sure we can win in every town and reach out to every voter, and these three (communities) give us that opportunity,” he said.

Lewiston is one of Maine’s biggest and most diverse cities but also has a large Franco-American contingent that often leans conservative, thereby making the city an early test case for a statewide campaign.

South Portland is next to a city where marijuana is already technically legal, although Portland police have vowed to enforce the state law that treats possession of smaller amounts of pot as a civil infraction. Boyer said York was chosen because of its proximity to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Reaction was mixed on Monday.

The chairman of the York Board of Selectmen, Ron Nowell, said he was puzzled by the group’s selection of the property-rich town, which often elects Republican state legislators.

“It’s almost comical. Why would they pick York? York has a tradition of being a bastion of Republican conservatism,” said Nowell, a town selectman for more than 20 years. “I find this to be bizarre.”

(Continued on page 2)

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