The council could have simply adopted a citizen-initiated ordinance to legalize the possession of up to 2 ½ ounces that was endorsed by more than 2,500 voters. But instead, it punted, leaving it to Portland voters to approve the measure or not in the November 5 elections.
Even if approved by Portland voters, marijuana possession remains illegal under federal law. State law considers possession of less than 2 ½ ounces of marijuana a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $600.
The vote to take the matter to the voters came after a Monday afternoon press conference at which civil rights leaders and political figures said that marijuana prohibition is expensive and its enforcement is racially disproportionate. Speakers included representatives of the NAACP of Maine, the Maine ACLU, the Portland Green Independent Committee, and the Marijuana Policy Project.
Speakers cited the recent national ACLU report on racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement. Regina Phillips of the NAACP of Maine, invoking the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black youth Trayvon Martin, argued that the marijuana laws are just another example of racial injustice in America.
"It has begun to feel like locking up young black men has become a national pastime," she said, citing figures that showed blacks get arrested at twice the rate of whites in Maine.
Maine wastefully spends $9 million a year on "aggressive enforcement" of marijuana laws that "ensnares thousands in the criminal justice system," said the Maine ACLU's Bob Talbot. "These are tax dollars that could be spend on hospitals, schools, or better solutions. The truth is the war on marijuana is a failure."
City Councilor David Marshall said that even though Maine had decriminalized possession, being caught with pot is still a federal drug crime with all its consequences.
"There's a whole host of federal programs you can be denied simply by having a possession of marijuana charges on your record," he said, adding that he thought the measure would be approved by "a large majority" of voters.