SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In a pair of municipal votes likely to foreshadow a statewide referendum in two years, Lewiston and South Portland residents decided at the polls Tuesday whether to legalize recreational marijuana for residents over 21 in those cities.

Unofficial results from South Portland indicate voters there have supported the legalization ordinance by a healthy margin. The ordinance was enacted by a vote of 6,326 to 5,755. Some 374 ballots were left blank, according to results filed with the BDN.

Unofficial results from Lewiston indicate voters there have rejected the legalization ordinance by an even healthier margin, more than 1,300 votes: 7,366 against the ordinance, 6,044 in support of it.

Representatives of the Maine branch of the national Marijuana Policy Project have made it clear their endgame is a 2016 statewide legalization vote.

But while nearly 67 percent of the voters in Portland made an emphatic first step toward that statewide goal, passing a local legalization ordinance in a lopsided tally last November, momentum outside Maine’s largest city has been harder to come by.

Marijuana advocates sought to place legalization on three municipal ballots this year, but York selectmen voted twice not to place it on the ballot, even after pot supporters gathered enough petition signatures to do so. The selectmen’s refusal held up to a hasty court challenge, and the Marijuana Policy Project was left with two cities in which to make a statement.

The atmosphere in those two cities differed from what was largely a welcoming one a year ago in Portland, where city councilors were either silent on the issue or supportive, and the police chief was restrained in his opposition.

South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald both have 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.

South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins has been the most vocal opponent of the legalization measure in that city, saying greater use of marijuana will make it less safe and reduce the quality of life there.

The legalization effort has been most visibly led by David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, who has argued enthusiastically on the campaign trail that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, and should be allowed under law.

“We applaud the voters of South Portland for approving a more sensible approach to marijuana,” Boyer said in a prepared statement. “They saw through the scare tactics and misinformation that have long kept marijuana illegal in this country.”

Boyer attributed the Lewiston vote to an off-year election.

“This is the first time voters in Lewiston have considered a measure making marijuana legal, so we are encouraged by the strong support it received in a midterm election,” he said. “It bodes well for the statewide initiative we plan to run during the 2016 presidential election to regulate marijuana like alcohol.”

Opponents of the legalization effort, such as Scott Gagnon, have disputed that logic, saying that adding another legal vice to the already potentially dangerous alcohol would only make substance abuse problems worse.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, drew encouragement from the vote in Maine’s second largest city.

“This discussion is far from over, especially when we see a city like Lewiston, Maine — a city with only 17 percent Republicans and 43 percent Democrats — voting against legalization,” he said in a prepared statement.

Seth Koenig

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