Proposed pot law debated

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WEST PARIS – This little town is now involved in a controversial issue that seems more at place in the liberal bastions of California than in the quiet foothills of rural Maine.

Nonetheless, because of a well-organized group from Lewiston seeking to divert law enforcement resources away from marijuana crimes here, West Paris residents this Thursday are invited to debate a proposed law seeking to make adult marijuana offenses the lowest law-enforcement priority.

The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, at the town office. The issue was approved by selectmen recently to go before voters March 3 at a town meeting.

“It’s an informational public hearing,” Selectman Wade Rainey said. “We’re not going to change the wording.”

The public hearing is a formality because town law requires any proposed ordinance be discussed in public prior to the annual town meeting where it is either accepted or defeated.

Rainey said he supported putting the ordinance on the upcoming warrant because the petition had well over the required number of signatures to make it valid. But, he added, “My opinion is that it is an unenforceable ordinance. If they pass it, it will be on the books for nothing. We don’t have a police force.”

The ordinance was written by a citizen-led group called the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative, which has been backed financially by the 11-year-old nationwide organization, the Marijuana Policy Project. The local group is promoting lowering the priority of policing marijuana in four towns: Sumner, West Paris, Paris and Farmington.

The group’s goal is to ultimately put enough pressure on government to decriminalize and then tax and regulate marijuana.

Last fall, Jonathan Leavitt, the initiative’s director, approached local officials in all four communities asking them to honor a petition to put the ordinance on their 2007 warrants.

Sumner and West Paris complied. But selectmen in Paris and Farmington blocked it from the warrant altogether because they said it was illegal and flouted state and federal law.

Selectmen have the authority to approve ordinances for vote at town meetings or to deny them if the proposed law is unconstitutional, according to the Maine Municipal Authority. When a citizen-initiated ballot is proposed, it must have a certain number of legal signatures from registered voters to be considered, but even then selectmen can reject it “if that refusal is reasonable,” Jeff Austin, an MMA lobbyist, explained Monday.

Reasonableness is a murky enough definition that it can be hashed out in court. And Leavitt has said that Paris and Farmington broke the law by refusing to put his ordinance on the warrant despite the number of legitimate signatures collected.

“Our lawyer is putting all the possibilities together, and in the next couple weeks we’ll fully know what our options are,” Leavitt said Monday.

Paris selectmen have argued that municipalities cannot alter state-mandated drug laws and that local law enforcement are sworn to uphold them.

Austin said he views the board’s decision as reasonable. “I don’t think selectmen would get laughed out of court,” he said.

But Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project that funded Leavitt’s campaign last year to get it started, said not only can towns ask their policemen to make marijuana crimes their lowest priority, but that other cities have already adopted similar laws.

West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Missoula County in Montana, and Eureka Springs in Arkansas have passed similar initiatives.

“There are local variations in the wording, but they were all deprioritizing marijuana offenses, either defined as personal or possession,” Mirken said.

He continued, “I am puzzled by why any person would say it can’t be done or is illegal. It is certainly just setting law enforcement priorities. It is just saying we think our police have better things to do, such as going after violent criminals rather than arresting people for personal marijuana offenses, and frankly, police do have better things to do in communities.”

Leavitt said the four towns were chosen because of activist interest in them, and that his organization would likely be starting work in other communities around the state.

He said if you asked voters in West Paris what their priorities are, he doubted the majority of them would request that their tax money go toward arresting people for smoking pot.

“We’re trying to reinforce that and get that on the record,” Leavitt said.

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