PORTLAND, Maine — In a vote that marijuana advocates hope is a preview of a statewide campaign in 2016, Portland residents supported by a wide margin a measure that will legalize marijuana possession in Maine’s largest city.

With all 12 of the city’s precincts reporting just before 10:30 p.m., the legalization referendum held a 9,921-4,823 advantage. That represented more than 67 percent in favor of the measure. The Bangor Daily News called the race just after 9 p.m. Tuesday.

“We’ve had dozens of volunteers on the street today, going into neighborhoods, [handing out literature], finding voters, bringing them to the polls,” said Portland City Councilor David Marshall, one of the key organizers of the legalization effort. “We had heavier voter turnout than expected in Portland … which was a really good sign, because our whole goal was to get the people who generally don’t vote in these off-year elections out to the polls in order to support this.”

The referendum was watched closely not only across the state of Maine, but across the country as well, as supporters sought to establish an East Coast beachhead after successful pot legalization efforts in Washington state and Colorado.

David Boyer, Maine political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, has said he hopes Portland will play a similar role here as Denver did in Colorado. The passage of a local measure legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Colorado’s largest city in 2005 was seen as a harbinger of the statewide legalization last year.

The Portland effort also comes as the tide of public sentiment nationwide appears to be turning in favor of marijuana legalization. National polling company Gallup reported late last month that 58 percent of Americans surveyed favor legalizing recreational use of the drug, a jump of 10 percentage points over a year’s time and the first time a majority signaled support.

Medical use of marijuana was legalized in Maine in 1999, and larger-scale dispensaries of medical cannabis were newly allowed in 2009.

The proposed Portland ordinance change, which would remove local criminal penalties for possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, was put on the ballot through the citizens’ initiative process. A coalition of organizations — Portland Green Independent Committee, Marijuana Policy Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Libertarian Party of Maine — collected nearly twice the 1,500 petition signatures necessary to force the referendum.

Proponents of the legalization measure have argued prohibition of the drug is ineffective, drives use of the substance underground and unnecessarily ties up law enforcement resources.

Opponents of the move, including the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, argue that the step would exacerbate substance abuse problems that feed other crimes, and that overseeing regulation and distribution of pot would be an expensive and time-consuming task for overburdened state agencies.

The Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services has argued that marijuana today has more than double the mind-altering chemical THC that the pot on the market in 1983 had, making it more potent and addictive, and that teenagers may be more likely to experiment with the drug after hearing legalization advocates downplay the danger.

In Portland, police officials have stated they will continue to enforce state laws prohibiting possession of the drug, but that marijuana has long been a low-priority enforcement for them. The U.S. Department of Justice has told Washington and Colorado it will allow recreational pot laws to go into effect in those states as long as the drug is heavily regulated.

Seth Koenig

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