Advocates for the legalization of marijuana in Portland called on the city's residents to take action and follow the lead of Colorado and Washington to approve decriminalization measures.
Representatives from the Portland Green Independent Committee announced the launch of a petition drive that aims to put a referendum on the ballot to legalize marijuana use in Portland. The ordinance the group hopes to enact would decriminalize the use and possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and accessory paraphernalia for adults who are 21 years or older.
"Portland residents will not wait for the state and federal governments to take action," said Tom MacMillan, chairman of the Portland Green Independent Committee.
The speakers — which included City Councilor David Marshall, David Boyer of the Marijuana Policy Project and ACLU of Maine Legal Director Zachary Heiden — highlighted that marijuana is safer than alcohol yet is the substance that's illegal.
"No one dies from marijuana use but many have died from alcohol," MacMillan said.
Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said marijuana is safer for consumers and the community, less harmful and addictive and not a contributor to violent and reckless behavior.
"... It is irrational to punish adults who use a substance that's safer than alcohol," he said, and law enforcement officials should focus on dealing with violent criminals instead of non-violent, recreational marijuana users.
Whether or not Portland voters opt to pass the measure, Boyer said, it's time to have a discussion about legalization.
Marshall said it's a misconception that legalizing marijuana will increase the number of people who use it.
"Keeping marijuana illegal actually sensationalizes it," he said, and leads more people to trying it.
Marshall said in Holland they've recorded 20 percent of adults who have tried marijuana and in the United States, that number is about 43 percent. Since the passage of medical marijuana in California, the number of teenagers trying the drug has declined, he said, and that trend is starting to be seen in Maine.
Heiden, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the ACLU's support of the decriminalization of marijuana is based in the failed war on drugs that has cost more than a trillion dollars and had little deterrent effect on drug use. He said the war on drugs has primarily fueled the country's incarceration rate, with more than 660,000 being arrested for marijuana use in 2011.
Jailing people who use marijuana recreationally makes no sense, Heiden said.
"The time is now to follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington and change our marijuana laws," Heiden said.
The Portland referendum initiative comes on the heels of Rep. Diane Russell's bill in the Maine Legislature that would create the taxation and regulatory structure around the decriminalization of marijuana. Russell's bill would leave it up to Maine voters to make the final decision on the legalization of marijuana through a state-wide referendum.
"We're not all that confident that the Legislature is to pass that bill," Marshall said. "... Our goal is to get a question on the ballot and advance the issue."
Marshall said he's confident that if the question gets on the November ballot, it will pass. He said it will then be critical for the Legislature to create the appropriate regulatory framework.
Marshall said the Portland referendum could work in concert with Russell's bill since the city lacks the authority to create a regulatory and taxation system. He said it's possible that the state-wide law could go to referendum before the initiative in Portland and make the effort moot.
The petitions will be delivered to the city clerk on May 30, according to MacMillan, and the goal is to collect more than 3,000 signatures, even though only 1,500 are required.