Marijuana: Could Maine pot measure push East Coast states toward legalization?

Colorado's Proposition AA, a marijuana-taxation measure, isn't the only high-profile pot issue being considered this election day. For instance, Portland, Maine residents will weigh in on Question 1, which removes penalties for possession of up to two and a half ounces of weed.

If the proposal is approved, Portland will become the first East Coast city to move toward legalization. Could it lead to Maine and other states following suit? One advocate sees a familiar pattern.

"The measure on the ballot in Portland is similar to the initiative approved by Denver voters in 2005," says Mason Tvert, the man behind that 2005 effort and among the principal proponents of Amendment 64.

Tvert is now the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project and has worked closely with locals to promote the Maine measure. As he notes, Question 1 "simply removes all penalties for possession of up to two and a half ounces for adults 21 and over."

Likewise, citizens in three Michigan cities -- Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale -- will vote on initiatives that would remove local penalties for adult marijuana possession. But there are precedents for this change in that state, where voters in Detroit and Flint made the same move last year, with those in Grand Rapids and Ypsilanti lessening the focus on punishment for weed at the same time. There's no such history in Maine, but Tvert thinks "voters in Portland are ready to end marijuana prohibition, just as voters nationwide appear to be."

This last comment is an allusion to a late October Gallup poll in which 58 percent of respondents supported the legalization of marijuana -- a higher number than in any previous survey by the company. Still, this figure doesn't strike Tvert as a huge surprise.

"Support had already been increasing, and we saw an exceptionally large jump in support over the last year," he points out. "That could be due to a variety of factors. Part of it could be the passage of initiatives in Colorado and Washington to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Part of it could be the memo issued by the Justice Department announcing that it would respect those state laws. And overall, I think both of these things lend to the main reason, which is that marijuana is being talked about more than ever before. And we've seen that the more people talk about marijuana, and marijuana policy, the more support there is for reform."

When it comes to marijuana, Tvert sees plenty in common between Denver and Portland. "Denver is the largest city in Colorado, and Portland is the largest city in Maine," he says. "And we have announced our intention to support measures to regulate marijuana like alcohol in Maine and about a dozen states where we think these laws could pass in the next few years."

The states fall into two categories: those where marijuana laws can be changed via the initiative process, much as was done in Colorado with Amendment 64, and ones where legislatures must act. The initiative states include Maine, Arizona, California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Montana, while Vermont, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maryland, Delaware and New Hampshire comprise the legislative states.

Despite the shift in public perception epitomized by the Gallup poll, the passage of marijuana reform in so many different places won't be easy, as the situation in New Hampshire shows.

Continue for more about the marijuana vote in Maine and the odds of broader legalization. "Right now, New Hampshire is in the process of implementing the medical marijuana law that passed this year in the legislature," Tvert says, "and we're working hard to insure the best rules possible get put into place." In the meantime, though, a broader legalization proposal hit a speed bump: "The way it works there is that a committee gets to either recommend passage of a measure or not, and the committee didn't do so. The full house can still vote on the measure, and it could still very well pass, but it's a process -- and we believe we have the ability to pass a measure there similar to Colorado's over the next few years."

He's even more optimistic about those states that allow initiatives. "In states where you have to go through the legislative process, elected officials typically tend to be behind their constituents on issues like this. But we're seeing support grow pretty quickly. More bills are being introduced, and they're receiving more sponsors and more support than ever before."

How many states would have to approve a legalization measure before the federal government would be forced to change its policy toward pot?

"There's no particular number," Tvert replies. "At this point, there's twenty states with medical marijuana laws, plus Washington, D.C. There are state-regulated dispensaries operating in many of them, and ones in the works in many more. And, of course, two states now have made marijuana entirely legal for adults [in limited amounts] and are in the process of regulating it like alcohol."

Granted, "Congress hasn't done much of anything lately, let alone take this on," he acknowledges. "So there's no way to say how many states would have to pass these laws before Congress would take action. It's going to be up to them, and up to leadership, and obviously, it's a tricky situation to pass any legislation on the federal level these days. But there's been more discussion of it than ever before, with several bills introduced, and a number of Colorado sponsors are signing on to them. So we're hopeful things are moving forward.

That's especially true of "issues like banking and taxes," he goes on. "I think banking, in particular, will be addressed relatively quickly, ahead of broader policy reform, because it doesn't necessarily require Congress to take action; it could be done administratively. But clearly, federal marijuana laws are broken, and rather than continuing to work around them, it's time to fix them."

Until then, what's his take on Portland's vote today?

"We are cautiously optimistic," he says. "It is an off-year election, and this is the first time voters in Maine have ever taken on this issue. But we think there will be significant support for the measure, and we feel voters in Portland are ready to move beyond marijuana prohibition."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Grover Norquist, anti-tax-hike guru, opposes pot tax Proposition AA."

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