By now, most people have figured out that the city’s new pot law, approved by a sizeable majority of Portland voters earlier this month, is largely symbolic — a bellwether of change coming on the state and national levels.
The local ordinance, which was approved by 67 percent of voters and goes into effect on December 6, legalizes use and possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, in private, among people 21 and older.
Not much will change as a direct result of the vote. The ordinance does not permit using pot in public. Recreational pot use is still illegal under federal and state laws; cannabis is considered a Schedule One drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. While possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana has already been decriminalized in Maine (it’s a civil violation punishable by a $350 to $1000 fine), growing or obtaining weed (or possessing more than the allowable 2.5 ounces) is treated as a crime in this state, punishable by larger fines and/or jail time.
“Because Maine already has state laws governing the use, possession and sale of marijuana, those laws overrule the new city ordinance,” says the city’s Frequently Asked Questions page, posted last week to help clear up widespread confusion about how the law will be interpreted. Portland police chief Michael Sauschuck said his department will continue to enforce the state pot laws as it has been, which is to say, not very strenuously (from June 2012 to June 2013, the department issued just 54 citations for marijuana charges, down from 68 the previous year).
“The voters expect the public and the police to comply with the new ordinance,” said Portland city councilor David Marshall, a member of the Green Independent Party who helped lead the grassroots effort to pass the referendum. “The election results are a mandate that supports the discretion police are using in regards to adult
marijuana enforcement.” Pro-pot advocates plan to meet with city officials and law enforcement officers in the coming weeks to minimize uncertainty and conflict. (Note Marshall’s use of the word “adult” — it’s become part of the legalization lexicon, a clear effort to acknowledge the detrimental effects of marijuana on developing brains and to underscore that weed, like booze, is meant to be enjoyed by grown-ups only.)
But while the municipal ordinance may fall short in terms of immediate or practical implications, it sets the stage for success on a larger scale.
“It’s a victory for common sense, for science, and for liberty,” says state representative Diane Russell, a Democrat who represents part of Portland and worked to pass the referendum. Russell has twice before introduced legislation that would legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Both attempts failed (but not miserably). She is currently working on a new version of that bill, which she now says “stands a really clear shot of passing in the legislature — which I’ve never been able to say before.” She calls this a “magical moment” for the pro-legalization movement.
Indeed, there seem to be only bright spots for those who want to change our counterproductive drug laws.