2014-07-18 / Front Page

Signatures submitted, pot debate continues

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Talk of legalizing marijuana in South Portland became a reality Monday when propot advocates submitted a petition to allow recreational use by adults.

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 up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana within city limits.

With backing from the national Marijuana Policy Project, Citizens for a Safer Maine submitted 1,521 signatures with their petition. To force council action, the group needed to collect signatures from 5 percent of registered South Portland voters. According to City Clerk Susan Mooney, 959 names were required, making it an apparent safe bet that the city council will have to deal with the issue.

On June 2, aware for months that a petition drive was imminent, the South Portland City Council made a somewhat unorthodox move, voting 5-0 to adopt a pre-emptive resolution opposing the decriminalization of marijuana in South Portland for anything other then medical use.

“We will definitely fight this all the way,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher at the time. “Just because something passes in Portland doesn’t mean it has to pass here.”

This past spring, Beecher joined a stakeholders group formed by Police Chief Ed Googins, shortly after a January announcement by David Boyer, political director of the Maine Chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project. Boyer had said his group would follow up on its success in Portland by launching similar measures in South Portland, Lewiston and York, with an eye toward a statewide legalization effort in 2016.

In June, on the same day the city council adopted its resolution, Googins’ group staged a press conference in Mill Creek Park to announce opposition to the legalization effort and to release data that purportedly shows how marijuana use has increased among young people in South Portland since 2010, when the substance was OK’d for medical use in Maine.

According to a Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey conducted in November 2013, 27.5 percent of students at South Portland High School admitted to smoking marijuana at least once in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. That number was up from 22.1 percent in 2011.

Meanwhile, 61.8 percent of students said it would be “sort of easy” or “very easy” for them to get marijuana, up from 57.5 percent who reported the same thing two years earlier.

A question not asked on the 2011 survey alluded to the perception of harm from smoking marijuana. When asked on the 2013 version, 64.7 percent of South Portland High School students said they felt either “no risk” or only a “slight risk” from smoking marijuana as much as two to three times per week.

But the risk is actually greater than ever before, according to Googins, who points to a National Institute on Drug Abuse study which found that the potency of marijuana — as measured by how much of the principal psychoactive agent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) it contains — has grown from 4 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent in 2012.

“As advocates for the recreational use of marijuana pursue their agenda, it’s important that the community knows what’s at stake,” Googins said. “Greater potency means that smaller amounts can make someone higher, faster, and perhaps more intoxicated than they are able to handle.”

Of particular concern to Googins is the possibility that legalizing marijuana for recreational use will lead to more people, particularly teenagers, driving while stoned.

“These incidents will surely rise if marijuana becomes more readily available,” he said. “Legalization of the recreational use of marijuana does not make our community safer and will not add to our quality of life here in South Portland.”

But Boyer’s group argues that legalizing of marijuana will actually reduce teen use.

“At almost every pass, our opponents bring up children,” he said. “With alcohol, we have controls against use by minors. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s way better than what we have now with marijuana.

“You can really put the drug dealers out of business by taking away their business and giving it to regulated, licensed business owners, who do check identification, and who are subject to stiff penalties if they do sell to minors,” Boyer said.

That’s been the rallying cry of Citizens for a Safer Maine, as evidenced in the group’s name. Boyer said Tuesday that while the local ordinance being petitioned only addresses decriminalization of recreational use, the 2016 statewide effort will include provisions to fully regulate and, perhaps more importantly, tax the sale of marijuana for general purchase by adults.

At Monday’s press event, called to herald submission of the petition signatures, Citizens for a Safer Maine was joined by Shenna Bellows, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union, now campaigning as a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

“The war on drugs has failed,” Bellows said at the event. “The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and a large number of our arrests and convictions across this country are rooted in drug-related offenses.

“I’m proud to stand with Republicans and Democrats alike in backing drug law reform and criminal justice measures that will strengthen our communities,” Bellows said.

Bellows has been endorsed by the Marijuana Policy Project, which Boyer said has donated to her campaign.

Staffers for her Republican opponent, Sen. Susan Collins, said the sitting senator would make no comment on the South Portland petition. Collins has in the past declined to go on record with her position on statewide legalization.

“While Sen. Collins believes that the president and Congress should be focusing like a laser on jobs and the economy, she would look for guidance from Maine’s law enforcement and medical communities in the unlikely event that legalization legislation is debated by the full Senate,” said a Collins spokesman, in a January comment given to the Portland Press Herald.

Citizens for a Safer Maine also is promoting the idea, hotly disputed by Googins, that marijuana uses poses fewer dangers in terms of health and behavioral issues than alcohol. It is hypocritical as a society, they say, to allow alcohol while banning marijuana.

“We have responsible individuals choosing to use a substance that is significantly safer than alcohol and tobacco and they are getting in trouble for it,” said Annie Sarbanis, a South Portland resident and volunteer with Citizens for a Safer Maine.

“It is time for us to take a step forward and reconsider the archaic laws around marijuana,” she said.

Boyer has acknowledged that municipal legalization has more political than practical impact, because marijuana use remains illegal under state and federal law. However, he has said the local efforts are a good testing grounds for the 2016 drive.

Boyer said Monday his group is “about halfway” toward achieving its petitioning goal in Lewiston, where it needs to collect 859 valid signatures. In York, town councilors recently acted on a 100-person petition, voting 3-2 to hold a public hearing on July 28. A no vote would have sent Boyer’s group back to the streets for a full petitioning attempt at 600 signatures, in order put the issue before voters.

Although marijuana boosters are hoping their initiative will go to a referendum vote in November in all three communities, there is no guarantee that will happen in South Portland.

According to the South Portland City Charter, Mooney has 20 days to certify the petition signatures handed in on Monday. Then, the city council has 60 days to hold a public hearing and act on the proposed ordinance.

The council can simply adopt the petitioned ordinance, or it can forward the proposal to voters. Councilors also can place the ordinance on the ballot alongside their own competing measure.

Because of a statutory requirement that absentee ballots be available 45 days before Election Day, Mooney generally sends them to be printed on or about Sept 12. Assuming Mooney takes the full 20 days to certify signatures, and that the council similarly runs the clock on its 60-day allowance, the petition would ordinarily have needed to be in Mooney’s hands no later than June 23.

However, there is the possibility that the city council could fast-track approval in order to put the issue in front of as many voters as possible. The city charter says that if the council does not approve a valid petition of its own accord, it must schedule a public vote at some point between 30 days and 15 months after taking receipt of the validated signatures.

Mayor Jalbert has noted that special elections tend to have low voter turnout, tipping the scales in favor of interest groups. A general election, such as November’s gubernatorial contest, has the best chance of attracting enough people to the polls to counter a pro-pot throng to the polls, he has acknowledged.

“It’s important for people to understand there are dangers to this drug and we really are concerned about this very much,” he said, arguing against legalization. “If it becomes more acceptable within the household, then that is what our kids and grandkids, and our friends’ and neighbors’ kids and grandkids, are seeing. Of course, they are going to mimic what we do.”

Still, whenever the issue of marijuana legalization goes before voters in South Portland, Boyer predicts success, based on his experience during the petition drive.

An April release by the Pew Research Center claimed that 54 percent of Americans now favor full legalization of marijuana, with support strongest among millennials, born between 1981 and 1998 (69 percent in favor), and weakest (30 percent in favor) among the so-called Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945.

Ironically, Boyer said, a majority of the petition signatures came from senior citizens.

“We did a lot of our signature collecting in front of the post office and we definitely got an older crowd,” he said. “Frankly, my generation doesn’t really mail things.”

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