PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine is one of 13 co-sponsors of a bill that supporters say would end marijuana prohibition at the federal level.

News of the proposed legislation came on the same day that a petition drive seeking to legalize pot possession began in Portland, the largest city in Pingree’s home state. The effort to decriminalize marijuana at a federal level also comes as state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is pursuing a bill in Augusta to do so at the state level.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said Thursday afternoon his group remains adamantly against the legalization of marijuana at any level.

Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, is currently the only member of Congress from New England to sign on in support of H.R. 499, titled the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013. The only Republican co-sponsor is U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, the bill would establish a system in which marijuana is regulated similarly to alcohol at the federal level, placing the drug under the jurisdiction of a renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, Firearms and Explosives.

Currently, regulation of pot as an illegal substance is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Congresswoman Pingree supports the bill because it is patterned after successful bills in Washington and Colorado, and she feels it’s a common-sense approach to regulation at the federal level,” Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree’s office, told the BDN on Thursday afternoon.

The proposed legislation, which was introduced by Colorado Democrat Rep. Jared Polis, would likely clear up what has become legal gray area in enforcement of marijuana laws across the country. While the substance is still outlawed by the federal government, 18 states — including Maine — have legalized its use as a doctor-prescribed medical treatment. At least two other states, Washington and Polis’ home state of Colorado, have passed laws decriminalizing its recreational use.

In Maine, efforts are under way to make possession of 2.5 ounces or less of the drug legal, first through a citywide petition in Portland and then through state legislation.

“We need the federal government to lower marijuana on the scheduled drug list and essentially treat it like alcohol,” said Portland City Councilor David Marshall, who attended the city petition drive launch Thursday morning. “We should have federal licenses for production and distribution.”

While federal agents have largely allowed state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries operate without intervention, discrepancies between federal, state and sometimes local laws on the issue of pot legality have been a subject of nationwide debate.

“It makes no sense to punish individuals for using a substance less harmful than alcohol,” David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement Thursday. “Instead, we should allow adults to use marijuana legally while regulating the production and sale of the substance. We will not only better control production and sales, but we will also create new jobs and generate tax revenue.”

Marshall echoed those comments Thursday afternoon, saying the end of the prohibition of marijuana could be similar to the end of the prohibition of alcohol in 1933 after 13 years in which spirits were disallowed and became the focus of black market trade and organized crime.

“The alcohol industry has become manageable. We’ve been able to reduce the amount of alcohol being consumed by teenagers and we’ve been able to hold people responsible for their actions, and that’s what we’d want to do with marijuana,” Marshall said. “Marijuana is undoubtedly America’s No. 1 cash crop, and all that [money is] going untaxed and it’s going to people who are not running legitimate businesses in the eyes of the law.”

Some researchers have estimated the U.S. marijuana market to be valued at as much as $100 billion annually, about the same as the market for brewed beverages.

But Schwartz argued that the legalization of alcohol has not come without repercussions over the decades, and said it’s bad logic to add more legal drugs to the landscape because another legal substance is arguably more harmful. He also reiterated concerns that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that people often use while working their way up to more dangerous illegal drugs.

“We’re opposed to legalizing it. It causes other problems. We don’t support it,” Schwartz said. “They throw a lot of money at alcohol problems and substance abuse problems, and this would only add to it.”

Seth Koenig

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