Mainers poised to vote on marijuana legalization in November

Don Christen of Starks smokes marijuana outside the Somerset County Courthouse during the 26th annual Patriot's Day Rally smoke-in, which he organizes every year to educate and bring awareness to the benefits of marijuana. (Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN)

AUGUSTA, Maine (BDN) -- Mainers will have a chance to vote to legalize recreational marijuana in November after all.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap announced Wednesday that about 11,000 signatures his office previously disqualified have now been validated following sworn oaths from seven signature gatherers that their petition forms were signed by Stavros Mendros, a Lewiston-based notary whose firm was hired to collect signatures.

An Act to Legalize Marijuana, which seems headed to the November ballot, was forced by a citizen initiative. If successful, it would allow Mainers age 21 or older to use, possess or transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. The initiative would place a 10 percent tax on retail marijuana sales.

Initially two groups started collecting signatures for competing marijuana legalization ballot questions, but they joined forces during the signature-gathering process in 2015.

Dunlap's office ruled in March that the petition drive had failed because nearly 48,000 of the 99,229 signatures submitted by petitioners were found invalid. The signatures were re-evaluated after the Maine Business and Consumer Court ruled in the petitioners' favor on April 9, forcing the state to reconsider.

David Boyer, who is leading the campaign to legalize marijuana in Maine, said pro-legalization forces will turn their attention to convincing voters in November.

"We are thrilled to finally start transitioning into the more substantive phase of this campaign," Boyer said in a prepared statement. "It has been a longer wait than expected, but nothing compared to how long the people of Maine have been waiting to end the failed policy of marijuana prohibition."

Opponents of legalization expressed disappointment that the measure's path to the ballot is now clear.

"It is extremely disturbing that in the same year we are rallying efforts to combat a serious addiction epidemic in Maine, there are those looking to forward an agenda that will increase the availability and usage of addictive substances and set up an industry that would profit from that addiction," said Scott Gagnon, a spokesman for the Maine chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes efforts in Maine and other states to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

The Maine Legislature in recent years r ebuffed multiple efforts to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Portland and South Portland voters passed municipal ordinances legalizing marijuana, while Lewiston voters rejected one.

Maine's consideration of legalizing marijuana for recreational use is part of a national effort. Voters in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use,

The state enacted a law to legalize medical cannabis in 1999, but the law has been amended in the Legislature and by voters several times since then.

The bill now goes to the Legislature, which could take the very rare step of approving it or, far more likely, send the question to the November ballot. The 127th Legislature is scheduled to convene for possibly its last day of business on Friday.

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