AUGUSTA, Maine — The national group that successfully pushed for legalization of marijuana in Colorado announced Monday that it will accelerate its efforts to pass laws that treat pot like alcohol in 10 more states by 2017.

The Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C., made the announcement the day before the federal Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on laws approved by voters in Washington and Colorado last year to legalize the recreational use of pot by adults. On Aug. 29, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would not seek to prevent the implementation of those laws.

Maine made medical use of marijuana legal in 1999 and established a dispensary system for medical marijuana patients 10 years later. Earlier this year, 35 state lawmakers co-sponsored a bill by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, to legalize and tax recreational use of marijuana. That bill was soundly defeated in committee, but Russell’s last-ditch attempt in June to put the question to a statewide referendum failed in the House by just four votes.

David Boyer, political director for Marijuana Policy Project in Maine, said that while the group continues to support legislative efforts toward legalization, the group will seek to put the issue in front of Maine voters via referendum in 2016.

“The legalization movement has really sped up over the past few years, but the political class is still kind of behind the times on this issue,” Boyer said in an interview Monday. “We put a lot of effort into Rep. Russell’s bill this past year, and if it’s up again, we’ll put more resources into it. But we can’t count on all the politicians in Augusta to do the right thing on this issue, so we need our own plan.”

A recent poll of potential Maine voters conducted by Public Policy Polling indicated that 48 percent think marijuana should be legal, while 39 percent say it should continue to be criminalized and 14 percent are unsure. Legalization has majority support from Maine Democrats and unenrolled voters, polling at 58 percent and 57 percent, respectively, according to the poll results. Among Republicans, 63 percent said they opposed legalization.

Although the group’s referendum goal is three years away, Boyer said the effort to get there has already begun.

At big events such as the Lobster Festival in Rockland, activists distributed handbills comparing marijuana with alcohol. Marijuana Policy Project seeks to regulate, tax and sell pot the same way as booze, and this is a comparison they’re banking on to resonate with Maine voters.

“Alcohol use is linked to about 5,000,000 violent crimes in the U.S. each year. Studies find no link between marijuana use and violent behavior,” stated one flier, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. The flip side of the brochure features an attractive, smiling young woman next to text that reads: “Some folks prefer alcohol. My preference is marijuana. Does that make me a bad person?”

Rob Kampia, the national executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, will come to Maine later this month to meet with potential campaign donors and activists, Boyer said.

“Marijuana prohibition is an utter failure and causes far more harm than good,” Kampia said in a statement. “By taxing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, we can take profit away from criminals, create jobs, generate tax revenue and allow law enforcement to focus on serious crimes.”

Law enforcement groups in Maine largely disagree with that last point: The Maine Chiefs of Police Association, Maine Sheriffs Association and Maine Drug Enforcement Agency all testified against Russell’s bill.

“Marijuana is not the benign organic plant that the drug legalization agenda would have us believe,” wrote MDEA Director Roy McKinney, who argued the drug is addictive and known to cause or complicate mental health issues.

Retired police chief Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police, said his group would continue to oppose any effort to legalize marijuana.

“In the end, it’s something that no doubt will be a headache for law enforcement,” he said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...