PORTLAND, Maine — An ordinance legalizing possession of marijuana for nonmedical use in Maine’s largest city goes into effect Friday.

Last month, Portland voters approved by a wide margin the legalization measure, which allows individuals 21 or older to carry 2.5 ounces or less of the drug according to city rules.

While medical use of marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999, and larger scale medical marijuana dispensaries have been legal since 2009, the Portland ordinance is the first in the state to legalize pot for recreational purposes.

Possession and recreational use of marijuana remains illegal under state law, and all uses of the drug continue to be outlawed under federal law.

Marijuana advocates have pledged to use Portland as a springboard for a statewide referendum on the issue in 2016 — if they can’t get the state Legislature to legalize the drug sooner — and are engaging in what they describe as an education campaign on the subject.

“The Portland initiative is a major step toward broader marijuana policy reform in Maine,” said David Boyer of the Marijuana Policy Project in a statement Thursday. “It is time to end the failed policy of marijuana prohibition in Maine and replace it with a more sensible system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol.”

On Thursday night, the pro-legalization Portland Green Independent Committee was scheduled to hold a forum on the city ordinance, which takes effect 30 days after the Nov. 5 vote.

“We realize that there is an immense amount of public interest in the legalization ordinance, and we need to make sure everyone is familiar with the new ordinance and how it interacts with state and federal law,” said Tom MacMillan, chairman of the committee, in a statement.

The ordinance allows marijuana use on private property but continues to ban it in public places, where smoking of any kind is generally prohibited.

The ordinance also gives landlords the authority to regulate pot use in their buildings.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has repeatedly stated his department will continue to enforce state law, which supersedes the local ordinance. But he has maintained that marijuana law enforcement has long been a low priority for city police, noting that out of about 85,000 calls for service last year, Portland officers handed out only 54 civic summonses for marijuana offenses.

Likewise, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has said the local ordinance does not override the state and federal laws her office is obligated to follow, and she views the Portland referendum as “somewhat advisory in nature.”

Ordinance backers, including Boyer and City Councilor David Marshall, have urged law enforcement officials to respect “the will of the voters” in the city.

This week, Boyer lauded the stance of police in Jackson, Mich., who announced that whenever possible they would adhere to a newly passed ordinance there decriminalizing possession of one ounce of marijuana.

“We hope city officials will follow the spirit of the law and stop punishing adults for simply using a less harmful substance than alcohol,” said Boyer. “Their counterparts in Michigan have demonstrated that it is possible. We expect Portland officials to either follow their example or explain why they are choosing to continue needlessly arresting people in defiance of the voters.”

Marijuana advocates have also pointed to an August letter from the U.S. Department of Justice — in which federal enforcers said they won’t interfere with new marijuana laws in Washington and Colorado as long as the drug is strictly regulated — as a positive sign for Portland as well.

Opponents of the move, including the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, argue that legalizing marijuana will 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.

Seth Koenig

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