Voters in South Portland, Maine, will get a chance this fall to decide whether they want to join their neighbor to the north in legalizing marijuana at the local level.
The South Portland City Council voted unanimously Aug. 4 to allow a ballot question in November that would legalize possession of up to an ounce of weed. Most council members said they oppose the idea but want voters to decide.
The issue will come up for a second and final vote Aug. 18.
The City of Portland legalized cannabis in last year’s election, becoming the first city on the East Coast to allow recreational pot. Possession of small amounts of the drug remains a violation of state law punishable by a $600 civil fine.
Maine decriminalized marijuana many years ago, expanding the law in 2009. Ordinances like the one proposed for South Portland would simply remove the civil fine and allow residents to buy, possess, and use weed without hassle.
These policies wouldn’t actually make pot legal, though. State law takes precedence over local ordinance, and some police departments say they’ll continue to enforce state statutes, regardless of local policy.
Proponents of the legalization effort in South Portland submitted more than 1,500 voter signatures in July, more than enough to make the ballot.
The Portland area isn’t the only place to consider legalizing. Last month, local leaders in York, Maine, rejected a petition to put the question on the ballot.
Elsewhere, a group in Wichita, Kansas, is pushing for local legalization, though the fight there is an uphill battle. And local reform is increasingly popular in Michigan, where about half a dozen cities have voted to make weed legal. Voters in three cities – Lansing, Ferndale, and Jackson, Mich. – legalized last year.
Whether police would enforce these policies varies from place to place. The police chief in Portland, for example, vowed to continue citing people who violate state laws, though officers already write few such tickets. In Michigan, meanwhile, some departments announced they would honor the new ordinances.
Local reform is increasingly viewed as a pathway to eventual legalization in states like Maine and Michigan. Though police may say they won’t observe a local vote, evidence elsewhere suggests that’s exactly what happens in many cases.
Marijuana advocates hope their local victories will translate into statewide reform – or even national legalization. As more cities remove penalties for possession, prohibitions in other parts of the state will become more tenuous, and the state will reach a tipping point. That, at least, is the theory.
“It sends a message to people across the country that Maine is going to be leading the way developing a more rational policy than prohibition,” state Rep. Diane Russell said in 2013.