2014-08-22 / Community

Voters will decide if pot allowed in South Portland

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

During Monday’s city council meeting, David Boyer, political director of the Maine Chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project, defends a proposal to decriminalize marijuana in South Portland. (Duke Harrington photo) During Monday’s city council meeting, David Boyer, political director of the Maine Chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project, defends a proposal to decriminalize marijuana in South Portland. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Although they held their collective noses while doing so, the South Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday to send a proposal to decriminalize marijuana to the public for a Nov. 4 referendum vote.

During debate, five of seven councilors spoke against the idea of calling off cops from enforcing state and federal prohibitions on pot. A sixth, Councilor Patti Smith, did not speak specifically against the idea Monday, but did vote in favor of a June 2 resolution in which the council said it would oppose any local attempt to legalize the weed for recreational use

Councilor Tom Blake, absent from the June 2 vote, did not divulge a personal position Monday, saying only that he believes the issue needs to be decided at the state level.

According to David Boyer, political director of the Maine Chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project, full legalization is the ultimate aim of his group, which plans a statewide petition timed to the 2016 presidential election. Boyer said decriminalization efforts now underway in South Portland, Lewiston and York are stepping stones designed to build momentum toward the 2016 goal.

With backing from Boyer’s group, Citizens for a Safer Maine submitted 1,521 signatures to City Clerk Sue Mooney on July 14, forcing council action — to either adopt the proposal, or pass it on to voters. The city charter also would have allowed the council to submit a competing ordinance, but the council has expressed no interest in alternative legalization plans.

“As a city councilor, I really have no choice as far as that goes,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher on the decision to send the ordinance to voters.

Under the charter, the council could have run out the clock on the 60 days it had to act, making a November vote impossible, given the requirement to have absentee ballots ready 45 days before polls open. Having acted, it also could have scheduled the referendum vote for any time within the next 15 months. However, the council seemed to find the upcoming gubernatorial election the best shot at avoiding overcoming a special interest turnout, given anticipated heavy traffic at the ballot booth that day.

“This is nothing more than a ploy for 2016,” said Mayor Gerard Jalbert of the citizen initiative. “I think it’s an abuse of the democratic process. However, I do believe a delay is simply a means to set it aside for some future council to deal with. It’s in front of us now. Let’s deal with it now.”

Modeled on a similar measure approved last fall in Portland by 67 percent of voters, the proposed ordinance would allow people age 21 and older to possess and, in private, use up to one ounce of marijuana within city limits.

At Monday’s council meeting, Boyer spoke at length, hitting the points he’s made repeatedly over the summer, particularly the notion that legalization will lead to regulation, which will make it harder for teens to obtain marijuana.

Boyer also continued his assertion that marijuana is both less addictive and less dangerous than alcohol, with fewer ill affects.

“It doesn’t make users violent or angry,” Boyer said. “Nobody gets high and then beats their wife.”

That prompted a Twitter response from Scott Gagnon, chairman of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse, who posted a link to an April 17 article in the Los Angeles Times about a Denver man who killed his wife while high on marijuana and allegedly suffering hallucinations.

It was, said the Times, the second death directly linked by police to the 2012 legalization of marijuana in Colorado. The Rocky Mountain State came up several times at Monday’s meeting, with statistics cited on both sides to prove the case for and against legalization in South Portland.

Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department said arrests for driving while high on pot were up 100 percent in Colorado last year, while Boyer pointed to the $24 million reaped by the state in sales taxes on the drug.

“That money is on the table here in Maine,” he said, “but right now we’re flushing it down the toilet. It’s going to drug dealers instead of into our communities.”

Despite Boyer’s insistence that people should not be subject to arrest for using marijuana, Clark said that possession of 2.5 ounces or less of marijuana is not a crime in Maine. A civil offence, such an infraction draws only a citation along the lines of a speeding ticket.

“It’s not really a priority for us,” said Clark, who issued just 46 such citations in South Portland over the past year. The “vast majority” were only given as add-ons to other infractions, such as when a stop for OUI uncovers a small amount of marijuana in the car.

“It’s not like were going door-to-door trying to get people for this,” Clark said.

Monday’s meeting took one odd turn when Jalbert quizzed Boyer on the funding that backs his group, a line of questioning he dropped when Boyer said he couldn’t see how it was germane to the petition at hand.

It was Gagnon who seemed to clarify what Jalbert was getting at, however, with posts to social media made immediately after the meeting. A link to a January Bloomberg article about firms hoping to make out on marijuana legalization was accompanied by Gagnon’s comment, “That’s money MMP Board Chair wants flowing into his pockets.”

Much as with the ongoing tar sands debate, accusations wild and otherwise are already beginning to fly on the marijuana issue, said Councilor Tom Blake, who called for a “smooth debate” leading up to the November vote. Blake said most people he’s talked to are already decided on the issues, one way or the other. It should be the city’s job over the next 10 weeks, he said, to “educate” the few undecideds in the middle.

But one person South Portland councilors won’t have to sway is Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt, who’s clearly in the council’s corner.

“Listening to Mr. Boyer, it sounds like marijuana is the new miracle drug,” he said during a public comment period at Monday’s council meeting. “Did it replace aspirin? Lipitor? He makes it sound like it’s the best stuff since peanut butter. I think that sends our kids a bad message.”

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