A group called Sensible Portland turned in 2,100 signatures to the city clerk’s office Tuesday aiming to let voters decide whether Portland should have an ordinance directing police to “refrain from arresting or fining” anybody 21 or older for possession of small amounts of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia unless the person is committing a “violent criminal offense” or has prior convictions for violent offenses.
If the clerk’s office verifies at least 1,500 of the signatures, the Portland City Council will take up the issue. The council would have the option of adopting the ordinance, putting it on the ballot or putting it on the ballot with a competing alternate ballot measure.
Supporters say law enforcement resources can be spent better than arresting people over small amounts of pot.
“In collecting signatures we heard from people of all ages and persuasions and backgrounds who wanted to deprioritize this and get real about how we prioritize our resources,” said John Eder, a former state representative and a spokesman for Sensible Portland. “Furthermore, we want to stimulate a conversation about the end of prohibition of marijuana.”
Michael Sauschuck, Portland’s assistant chief, said he and the city’s legal staff are developing a policy position on the ordinance, but he said he didn’t have an opinion on Wednesday. Sauschuck becomes acting chief in August when the current chief leaves to take the top police post in Cincinnati.
Law enforcement agencies for the most part don’t make simple pot possession a high priority, said Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney, who once worked for the Bangor Police Department. The MDEA goes after drug traffickers, he said, and local police typically charge people with marijuana possession only when officers come across it when responding to other cases, such as assaults, thefts or drunken driving.
McKinney said he would respect the wishes of the community if it wanted to make possession a low priority, but would probably object if the ordinance called for legalization.
“It’s a whole different value if you want to make it legal,” he said. “That’s a whole other conversation.”
Maine is one of 13 states that have passed laws decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In Maine, possession of less than 2.5 ounces is a civil violation with fines of up to $600.
Dozens of municipalities around the country have been passing “lowest law enforcement priority” laws in recent years, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. Those ordinances include lowering fines for marijuana possession to zero, mandating that violations be settled in low-level courts or simply directing police to make pot possession a low priority.
“What Portland is trying to do here is part of a long-term national trend that has been accentuated over the past five or six years under this notion of lowest law enforcement priority,” he said.
Still, law enforcement agencies and organizations often oppose initiatives to ease marijuana possession laws — or any drug laws, St. Pierre said.
“Law enforcement is always the first to oppose these, at all levels, from state police to local police to county sheriffs,” he said.
Eder said he hasn’t heard of any organized opposition to the proposal in Portland. The ordinance won’t carry the weight of law but is merely a directive toward police, he said.
“We’re hoping that they would take into account the will of the voter,” he said.