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Portland, Maine May Legalize Pot

If voters say Yes in November, it will become the first individual US city to legalize recreational marijuana use.

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By Mei Schultz

07/18/13

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Ranked No. 5 on Travel and Leisure’s “America’s Best Cities for Hipsters” list, Portland, ME is something of an urban anomaly amid Maine’s dense forests and often conservative population. Like its Oregon namesake, it boasts plentiful restaurants and a mild coffee obsession. And Portland, ME is now following the Pacific Northwest in another way: State Rep. Diane Russell (D-Munjoy Hill and Downtown Portland), is heading a campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in the city. In a 5-1 vote on Monday, Portland City Council opted to put the question to the vote in a city-wide ballot on November 5. Russell’s plan would allow over-21s to possess two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana and six plants within city limits. The measure also instigates licensing requirements for cultivators and retailers. While medical marijuana—which Maine already permits—would remain tax-free, the bill imposes a tax on growers that Russell claims will generate $13 million per year for the state, with 10% going towards substance abuse prevention.

Among the plan's supporters, Maine ACLU representative Bob Talbot notes that Maine spent $8.9 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010, and that 47.9 % of all the state's drug arrests that year were for pot charges. David Boyer of the Marijuana Policy Project said, “There is no need for the city to continue spending precious time and resources punishing adults for using a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.” And other factors are also involved: Regina Phillips of the Maine NAACP cites statistics that “white people and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate. Yet on average in Maine, black people are arrested for marijuana possession at twice the rate as white people.”

Portland police are the most vocal group opposing local legalization. Since pot would remain illegal in surrounding areas, use within Portland would be difficult to regulate, they argue. Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has also expressed concern that increased pot use could increase general crime rates.

Portland’s case is unique. Russell, in her preliminary petition, didn't address how the city would function as a legal-pot oasis in a state where recreational marijuana remains illegal. Colorado and Washington are currently the only two states that permit recreational marijuana use. In June, the Maine senate voted 24-10 against Bill LD-1229 to legalize and tax marijuana on the state level. If the citizens of Portland vote Yes in November, the logistics of regulating this localized policy will be contentious.

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