PORTLAND — Since Portland voters overwhelmingly approved a city ordinance last November locally legalizing possession of 2.5 ounces of marijuana, city police have issued 48 citations to individuals caught with the drug.
In the previous 10-month period, for comparison, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his department issued 33 such citations.
While the voter-approved ordinance nominally legalized possession and private recreational use of pot, state and federal laws still outlaw the drug.
Sauschuck and state Attorney General Janet Mills were clear in the aftermath of last November’s vote their offices would still be obligated to enforce state and federal laws, but the chief said his department has long considered marijuana offenses a low priority.
The new ordinance also demanded that Mayor Michael Brennan update the City Council on how police are enforcing marijuana laws each October.
The issue of enforcement also takes center stage as voters in two other Maine cities — neighboring South Portland and Lewiston — prepare to vote on Nov. 4 on similar local legalization ordinances.
In those communities, like in Portland a year ago, legalization advocates have acknowledged the disconnect between local and state laws, but urged police to respect the will of the voters and stop issuing summonses for the drug.
Tom MacMillan, chairman of the Portland Green Independent Committee, blasted the increase in Portland marijuana citations in a guest column posted on the Bangor Daily News blog, Fighting the Tides.
MacMillan argued that Portland police are not citing medical marijuana users even though Maine’s medical marijuana law conflicts with federal law, which presents no loophole for the drug’s medicinal use.
“It is wrong for the city to hide behind state and federal law on marijuana legalization and to pick and choose which federal and state laws to ignore and which to obey,” he wrote. “The people of Portland have spoken. We need to end police overreach and allow adults to make their own decision on marijuana use. Portland residents demanded an end to citations for adult marijuana users a year ago.”
As part of Brennan’s annual report, Sauschuck told the council on Monday night his officers have issued 48 marijuana citations to 46 different individuals in the 10 months since the ordinance went into effect.
The chief said those citations came out of 69,000 calls for service, and 14 of those citations wouldn’t have been legal even under the local ordinance, which still doesn’t allow individuals who are in public or under the age of 21 to use the drug.
Another 12 were issued to adults who were being arrested on other charges, such as domestic violence assault, refusing to submit to arrest or theft, Sauschuck said.
Four who were issued citations for marijuana possession had outstanding arrest warrants for other charges, the chief said, while another four were issued citations for the drug while being the subject of investigations that ultimately led to other charges.
Sauschuck said 10 of the citations came from traffic stops in which the driver appeared impaired, by driving the wrong way down a one-way street or going through a stop sign without stopping, for instance.
The chief said another four were issued to individuals engaged in what he called “suspicious activity,” three of which he said were found “passed out behind the wheel” of stopped vehicles, at least one of which who had just been in a crash.
The remaining four citations went to a homeless man as part of standard screening at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, a man trespassing at night on a private home’s fire escape, a man who a local hotel wanted removed from its property, and a man suspected of bringing a teenager from Detroit to the city for sex trafficking.
Sauschuck said in the same 10-month stretch in the year prior to the passage of the marijuana legalization ordinance, the police issued 33 such citations.
He detailed those citations in a memorandum to Brennan prior to Monday night’s meeting, noting that 16 of those 33 were issued to individuals under the age of 21 and two were for public use.
Another six came from traffic stops, one from a false reporting of a shooting, one from a domestic violence incident, three from the execution of arrest warrants, one from a trespassing case and three as violations of bail conditions.
“After an examination of both pre-ordinance and post-ordinance citations, I am satisfied that Portland’s officers are using their discretion in an appropriate and judicious manner,” Sauschuck wrote to the mayor. “Officers are not seeking out violations of Maine’s civil possession statute, nor are they failing to enforce the law when the situation requires it.”