SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Advocates for recreational use of marijuana could have picked easier places to seek legalization ordinances than South Portland and Lewiston. But the second- and fourth-largest cities in Maine were chosen, in part, because they provide bigger stages upon which to make a statement.

The national Marijuana Policy Project started its campaign toward a 2016 statewide legalization referendum in Maine last fall, convincing nearly 67 percent of those who voted in Portland, the state’s largest city, to approve an ordinance allowing possession of the drug.

David Boyer, Maine director of the organization, said his group will pursue the statewide vote in two years “win, lose or draw” in Lewiston and South Portland. But make no mistake, he’d rather be going into 2016 on a three-city winning streak.

“Having three of Maine’s four largest cities voting to make pot legal sends a strong message to the rest of the state, and it sends a strong message to legislators that this is what the people want,” he said. “It would definitely be a big boost to momentum.”

On the flipside, opponents see the South Portland and Lewiston votes as opportunities to show that pot legalization is unpopular and unlikely to be successful statewide.

Opponents of the measure already have blocked legalization’s advance in one community, York, where Boyer and his supporters gathered enough petition signatures to trigger a vote, but selectmen refused to place the referendum on the ballot.

A superior court judge supported the selectmen’s decision, and with little time remaining before the Nov. 4 election, the Marijuana Policy Project begrudgingly backed off.

“I don’t know that [statewide legalization] is such a foregone conclusion,” said Scott Gagnon, Maine director of Project SAM — which stands for Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “I think Mainers still have a place to put their stake in the ground on this, and we look to South Portland and Lewiston. York already did that to some degree, where the selectmen said, ‘Wait, this really isn’t our place.’”

With York out of the running this fall, that leaves South Portland and Lewiston, two places where top city and police officials have vocally opposed legalization. The resistance marijuana advocates face in the second phase of their statewide march stands in contrast to what they encountered in Portland, where city officials were largely either silent or supportive of the measure, and police have been subdued in their opposition.

South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald have both spoken strongly against legalization, and police officials in both cities say they’ll enforce state law, which outlaws recreational use of pot, even if the local ordinances pass.

“It is a serious issue,” South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins said during a debate on the referendum last week. “It will have a serious impact on all of us. It will not make our community safer or add quality of life.”

But facing a bigger challenge, Boyer said, was part of the plan. The larger cities provide greater exposure for what he called the Marijuana Policy Project’s effort to educate people on the issue — specifically, on how his organization believes pot is in many ways less harmful to use than alcohol, which is legal and regulated.

“If we picked towns like Orono or Farmington, college towns, nobody [outside those communities] would be educated, and nobody would be surprised if we won,” Boyer said. “There’s still a lot of misinformation that floats around out there that people believe. And that’s one of the reasons we do this, to educate people.

“Plus, we don’t want adults to be punished,” he continued. “We want adults to have the choice to responsibly use marijuana in the privacy of their own homes, and we want to help as many adults as possible, so going to some of the largest populations is the best way to do that.”

Marijuana vs. alcohol

The most common debate on the marijuana campaign trail involves whether pot is more or less dangerous than alcohol — or whether it matters.

Boyer and other legalization supporters have made it a point to call current laws against marijuana use “prohibition,” relating them to the failed 1920s-era ban on alcohol, which drove use of the substance into an unregulated, criminal-controlled underground.

Boyer said the prohibition on pot has had a similar effect, and legalizing its recreational use statewide would give authorities leverage to regulate its chemical substance and create a new revenue stream by taxing it.

“Alcohol and cigarettes kill millions, but no one’s overdosed ever on marijuana. Why would we want to keep that illegal and drive people to use these other substances?” he said. “The draw of making it legal and regulating it is we’ll have more information. If you buy a bottle of alcohol, you can look at the label and tell what’s in it. You can’t tell when you buy marijuana how much [of the mind-altering compound] THC is in it or where it came from.”

Boyer also reiterated arguments he’s made repeatedly in recent years lobbying for legalization: that marijuana has been shown less likely to make users violent than alcohol. His organization has begun promoting a Facebook advertisement showing silhouettes of men brawling with bottles in their hands, accompanied by the statement: “Marijuana, it’s like alcohol. Just without the fighting.”

“It feels to me that the vast majority of voters know how they come down on this issue,” he said. “If I had to guess, I’d say only about 10-20 percent are undecided, and we don’t really know what moves those undecideds. We want them to know that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and appeal to that sensibility before they vote.”

But relating marijuana to alcohol can work both ways. Opponents say the legal use of cigarettes and alcohol by adults can give children the impression the substances aren’t dangerous, and it doesn’t make sense to add a new intoxicant to the list of legal drugs that can tempt Maine’s young people.

“It defies logic that a third legal drug … would make this any better,” Googins said during last week’s debate.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has argued that alcohol is the most widely abused substance among minors and juveniles, in part, because parents legally keep it in their homes, where young people can more easily access it.

“Part of the reason we have problems with underage drinking is the access youth have to alcohol,” Gagnon agreed. “Regulations against alcohol aren’t as strict as they could be. … I don’t know that I want to model a marijuana policy after [alcohol policy], because that needs to be fixed.”

Gagnon also argued that many substance abusers are not simply deciding between alcohol and marijuana — with increased access, he said, they’ll use both.

“We’re not out to be the fun police,” he said. “We’re not out to round up adults who are using marijuana, we’re not out to restrict the freedoms of adults, which is what [legalization advocates] try to make us out to be sometimes. We just think at the end of the day, this is a policy that would increase access to the drug.”

As in Portland, use of marijuana in public or by individuals younger than 21 would remain illegal under the legalization ordinances being proposed in Lewiston and South Portland.

The Portland ordinance allows possession of 2.5 ounces of the drug, however, while the Lewiston and South Portland ordinances would allow possession of just one ounce.

Private medical use of pot has been legal in Maine since 1999, while larger-scale dispensaries of medical marijuana have been legal in the state since 2009.

Lily O’Gara, staff reporter for The Forecaster, contributed to this article.

Seth Koenig

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