The referendum campaign was an overwhelming success. The ordinance garnered more than 80 percent of the vote in four voting districts (all on the peninsula) and fell short of 50 percent in just one (the neighborhood of North Deering, where it got 48.7 percent) — stats that can surely be chalked up to the get-out-the-vote efforts of a coalition that included the Maine Green Independent Party, the state chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project, and the Maine Marijuana Caregivers. It’s also worth noting that Denver passed a very similar ordinance to Portland’s in 2005; that move was seen as laying the groundwork for that state’s campaign in 2012.
And there are other positive indicators. For example, the federal Department of Justice announced this summer that it would not go after marijuana users in Washington and Colorado, the two states that legalized recreational pot use in 2012. In August, the DOJ released a memo outlining eight “enforcement priorities” on which federal prosecutors will focus moving forward, including preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, diverting revenue from the sale of marijuana from criminal operations such as cartels, and “the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states.” The document explicitly states that size or profitability alone are not sufficient reasons to pursue legal action against marijuana operations.
Russell describes this document as “a path forward for states” — a legalization road map of sorts that can help legislators craft policies that address those priorities and thereby avoid a legal showdown with the feds. Her revised bill, which is currently being considered by the Legislative Council (meaning that it could be voted on by the legislature at the beginning of next year), contains provisions for reducing pot use among minors, drug-recognition expert training for law enforcement (so they can identify people whose driving is impaired by drugs), and integrating the medical marijuana community into a new regulatory system.
Meanwhile, New Republic staff writer Nate Cohn writes “we’ve reached the point where there should be no surprise if a major national politician embraces marijuana legalization.” A Gallup poll released in October showed that 58 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized (it also showed that Independents have driven the jump in support, which bodes well in Maine). A New York Times editorial at the beginning of November noted that “of the two substances, alcohol is far more hazardous.”
Expect to hear a lot more on that last talking point — the comparison of marijuana to alcohol.
“[W]e believe it is critical [to] take into account the wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society,” wrote David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, in a letter “welcoming” the formation of a statewide affiliate of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national organization that opposes pot legalization. “If SAM intends to oppose proposals to make marijuana legal for adults and regulate it like alcohol, we will expect you to explain why you believe adults should be allowed to use alcohol responsibly, but should not be allowed to engage in the responsible use of a substance that is less toxic, less addictive, and (unlike alcohol) does not contribute to violent behavior.”
Make no mistake: Attitudes about weed are changing, and Portland’s recent vote only adds to the pile of evidence.
Boyer says his organization plans to pursue additional legalization efforts, akin to the one in Portland, in other Maine cities (Lewiston is “at the top of the list”), and will pursue a statewide ballot initiative in 2016.
That is, unless Russell’s legislative effort is successful. And she seems confident. “The Portland vote really sent a clear message that it’s time,” she says. “It’s a pretty solid rebuking of the current system.”