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Portland Legalizes Marijuana, But Not Much Will Change
11/06/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Now that Portland has become the first city on the East Coast to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults, the question is: What will be different? Pot is still illegal at the state and federal level. The new ordinance does not permit it to be sold or used in public. And until activists, lawmakers or voters change Maine law, Portand's police chief says he intends to approach enforcement the same way he always has. Susan Sharon has more.

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Marijuana referendum supporters celebrate.

Marijuana legalization supporters celebrate their lopsided victory last night in Portland.

The first thing several pro-marijuana supporters did Tuesday night after their lopsided victory in Portland was to light up a foot-long joint and pass it around. They were ordered to put it out by a manager at the bar where their celebration was taking place.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck says even after passage of the referendum, such activity remains illegal. The new ordinance won't permit it. And neither does state law.

"There's really no change at all, and we've been very consistent about that since day one," Sauschuck says. "State law pre-empts an ordinance of this sort, a local ordinance of any sort, so it's not going to change the way we do business on a daily basis."

In fact, all the Portland ordinance does is allow those age 21 or over to possess marijuana in the privacy of their own home. And the reason Sauschuck says it won't change much is because Maine is one of 13 states that has already decriminalized marijuana possession for 2.5 ounces or under.

That means no one in Maine is going to jail for having a small amount of pot. It's a civil offense where a fine is issued instead. And in Portland, that doesn't happen very often. According to Sauschuck 54 people were charged with civil possession last year, and 68 the year before.

He says his department won't stop issuing civil citations for marijuana possession. "This is nothing we're going to be waiting around the corner to pounce on somebody who's smoking a joint somewhere or possession of marijuana. But we will enforce the law when we come into contact with that."

"You know, I still think it makes a big difference in sending a message to our elected leaders that it's time to move forward," says Rep. Diane Russell, a Democrat from Portland who recently sponsored a bill to tax and regulate marijuana statewide.

The bill was rejected. But Russell plans to reintroduce a similar measure. She also supported the Portland referendum, and she says city officials, including law enforcement, should pay attention to voters' wishes.

"When 67 percent of voters say it's time for a change, that this is not working anymore, I think politicians would be smart to rethink their positions and to respect the will of the people," she says.

The will of the activists and volunteers who worked to pass Portland's ordinance is to keep trying to change laws. David Boyer is with the Maine Marijuana Policy Project.

"MPP is positioned to put taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol on the 2016 ballot, unless the Legislature catches up to the majority of Portlanders and Americans and ends marijuana prohibition," Boyer says. "If they don't, in the meantime, than voters statewide will have the opportunity to change the laws in November of 2016."

As activists look to make Portland a springboard for their efforts, a new advocacy group intends to raise awareness about the misconceptions, policy and health problems associated with pot. Smart Approaches to Marijuana, founded by former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, plans to undertake a statewide education campaign, according to its new spokesman. The group wants to be firmly in place in advance of the expected ballot question in 2016.



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