PORTLAND, Maine — A coalition of political groups and activists say marijuana possession should be legalized in Maine’s largest city, in part because they say the drug is significantly safer than alcohol.

The effort comes on the heels of the introduction of a bill in the state Legislature by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, that would legalize, regulate and tax pot possession across Maine.

Tom MacMillan, chairman of the Portland Green Independent Committee, told the BDN Wednesday night his organization — and other like-minded groups — need to get 1,500 signatures of city residents on a petition seeking to place a referendum on whether to legalize pot possession on Portland’s November ballot.

The committee will be joined by representatives from the Marijuana Policy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, among others, for a news conference Thursday morning highlighting the petition, which MacMillan said has been circulated for nine days and already has “several hundred” signatures on it.

“By Portland doing this, we will really send a very clear message in the same way that Denver sent a very clear message to the rest of Colorado when they passed an ordinance in 2005,” MacMillan said. “Portland has tremendous power in the legislature. … We think sending a message that [the Portland delegation’s] constituents want this and demand it, it can’t hurt Rep. Russell’s bill.”

In 2005, voters in the city of Denver passed a law making it legal to possess a small amount of marijuana, making it the first major U.S. city to do so. In 2012, Colorado joined Washington as the first states to legalize recreational marijuana.

Maine is one of 18 states in which marijuana can be legally used for medical reasons, prescribed to patients to fight chronic pain, among other ailments.

The Portland groups are seeking to make possession of 2.5 ounces or less of pot legal within city limits. If the measure is placed on the local ballot and then passed by voters, it would still buck current state law outlawing marijuana possession — unless Russell’s bill is passed, and even then for nearly a year before the statewide law is implemented.

And, of course, the state law allowing medical marijuana runs in conflict with federal law, in which marijuana is illegal.

David Boyer, state political director of the marijuana policy project, pointed out that federal law enforcement agents have not cracked down on medical marijuana dispensaries that have been approved at the state levels, and said he hoped the same respect for local laws would play out in Maine’s largest city.

“Ultimately, I don’t think the feds will involve themselves in Portland,” said David Boyer, state political director for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. “So it will be up to the state and local police to decide if they want to respect the will of the voters or if they want to enforce the state law.”

Boyer said part of the rationale for pursuing the legalization of marijuana is the expected effect on police resources.

“It’s a way to free up our law enforcement to tackle more serious and dangerous crimes. Right now they still give citations and arrests for marijuana-related charges, while there are other crimes going on,” Boyer said. “[There are] robberies of pharmacies for other drugs, assault, or other violent crimes. I think their time is best served pursuing and prosecuting crimes like those instead of adults who are choosing to relax by using marijuana.”

But Boyer said his group’s “No. 1 argument” for seeking to make possession of small amounts of pot legal is that it’s safer than alcohol, which has been legal for decades.

“Alcohol causes deaths every year in Maine — hundreds over the past couple of years — and marijuana hasn’t,” he said.

Efforts to de-fang enforcement of marijuana laws in Portland in the past have fallen short. In 2011, activists gathered signatures on a petition seeking to make pot possession offenses the lowest enforcement priority for Portland police. But despite getting more than 2,100 signatures on the petition — 600 more than necessary to get a spot on the local ballot — the city clerk’s office found the document was invalid because only about 1,400 of the names were from verified Portland residents.

“People were overly enthusiastic — many people signed more than once or signed without being valid registered Portland voters,” MacMillan said.

MacMillan said the groups hope to get between 3,000 and 4,000 by the May 30 deadline to submit petitions for the November ballot this time around, providing enough of a buffer to avoid the results discovered two years ago.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.