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Maine Target For Marijuana Legalization
09/25/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

The national director of the Marijuana Policy Project expects Portland voters will approve a local referendum to legalize possession of marijuana this November. Rob Kampia is in Maine this week trying to build support for the Portland measure and for an effort to legalize marijuana at the state level. Maine lawmakers recently rejected a bill to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. But as Susan Sharon reports, supporters have identified Maine and nine other states as places that are ripe for policy reform.

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Beginning next year, lawmakers in five states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maryland and Hawaii will take up bills to legalize marijuana. Alaska voters will have their say at the ballot box in August. And by 2016, voters in Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and California will join them. Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project says these are all states where public support for legalization has been gauged at 50 percent or higher and where his group plans to actively campaign. He says he's been galvanized by what has happened across the country in the past year.

Rob Kampia says: "Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. Vermont decriminalized marijuana. New Hampshire and Illiniois legalized medical marijuana and Oregon and Nevada improved their medical marijuana laws. All this happened in the last ten months so we're very excited about the trajectory nationwide."

Twenty states have now legalized medical marijuana and Kampia says that has helped fertilize the ground for legalization efforts. So have changing demographics. While most people in their late 70s and 80s haven't used marijuana, Kampia says most people in their 20s have. Their grandparents and parents, who secretly smoked pot, were raised during an era when cannabis use was demonized and when the War on Drugs resulted in increased rates of incarceration. Even Kampia, at the age of 43, has had his own run-in with the law.

Rob Kampia says: "When I was a student at Penn State I was arrested for growing my own marijuana for recreational use. And I spent three months in jail for that. And so when I got out of jail I got politIcally active."

But despite a string of victories in individual states, Kampia and other supporters of legalization must still contend with the fact that marijuana remains outlawed at the federal level. Against that backdrop, Portland voters are being asked to consider an ordinance that would legalize possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana or less for adults age 21 and over. There is no organized opposition against the ballot question. But Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck is not a fan.

Michael Sauschuck says: "From a law enforcement perspective, the ordinance as drafted and as we've seen, is in direct conflict with both state and federal law. So, at this point, based on our legal research, this would really would have no direct impact on our options or discretion."

In other words, Sauschuck says, the ordinance won't change a thing. That's because Maine is already one of the few states that has decriminalized possession of marijuana. Someone caught with less than 2.5 ounces faces a civil offense accompanied by a fine.

Michael Sauschuck says: "You can't arrest somebody in the state of Maine for possessing less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana unless it's packaged for sale, you're distributing it, you're trafficking it, furnishing it. That's a different situation."

Supporters of the Portland ordinance, including the ACLU of Maine, often point to drug arrests as one argument for legalization. But Sauschuck says of the 85-thousand annual calls to Portland Police only about 120 involved civil possession for marijuana over the last two years. Still, Rob Kampia says he sees no reason why the Portland initiative won't pass.

Rob Kampia says: "What we see all across the country is when we put simple questions about marijuana policy reform on local ballots, almost all of them pass. I think I can count on three fingers the number of initiatives that have failed."

If the Portland ordinance is approved, Kampia is hoping other cities and towns will be encouraged to pass similar initiatives even before a statewide campaign for legalization gets off the ground.




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