SUMNER – Next year, voters in this tiny town of just over 800 people will vote on a first-of-its-kind ordinance in Maine. Its title? “An Ordinance to Make Adult Marijuana-Related Offenses the Lowest Law Enforcement Priority in the Town of Sumner.”

A similar article to de-prioritize marijuana possession and use will be considered at Farmington’s annual town meeting, and may also be considered at town meetings in Paris, West Paris and Athens, where petitions have been signed and delivered.

Jonathan Leavitt presented Sumner selectmen with the citizens’ petition on Monday and recommended the town “let law enforcement do what it does best – that is, enforce laws people support.”

Leavitt, a Green Party activist, lives in Sumner and is executive director of the nonprofit Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative. MMPI is headquartered in a storefront on Lisbon Street in Lewiston near the police station.

The strategy of people supporting the ordinance is to get it passed in several small towns before moving on to larger cities, explained Leavitt. Petitions are being circulated in other Maine communities, including Starks, Norway, Denmark and Lincoln.

“This is simple democracy. They can let the communities decide,” Leavitt said.

Farmington, too

Farmington Town Clerk Leanne Pinkham said selectmen received the de-prioritizing marijuana petition, a document that appears to have more than enough signatures to get it placed on the annual town meeting warrant.

Farmington police Chief Richard Caton said if the ordinance passes, police will have to figure out how to fulfill their oaths to uphold state and federal laws while still obeying the town ordinance. Police would have to decide whether to enforce those laws at all, he said.

“A better way, if this is the sentiment of the people, is the change the state and federal laws,” he said.

And, “I think the people of the town of Farmington want to seriously consider if they pass this ordinance, what clientele it may bring to the town,” Caton added.

His boss, Farmington Town Manager Richard Davis said Wednesday that he wants a legal ruling on the issue to see if it squares with state law.

“I was asked to get a response from the MMA,” Davis said, using the acronym for the Maine Municipal Association. The MMA offers legal guidance to the state’s cities and towns.

In Paris, Town Clerk Elizabeth Larson said a petition with what appeared to be enough signatures was delivered this week but has yet to go before selectmen. If at least 211 of the 256 signatures contained in the petition are verified, the article will likely be placed on the annual meeting warrant.

Similar movements are under way in Arkansas, California, Washington, Michigan and Montana.

Leavitt and his supporters understand “we can’t change the laws as they exist,” but hope that when government officials at the local, state and federal levels see that voters do not support the continued prosecution of adult marijuana offenses that the groundswell might force policy changes.

“Not only is this costing taxpayers money for enforcement of laws that people really do not want enforced,” Leavitt said, but marijuana prohibition laws also deny “what could be a real significant and sustainable commerce in hemp.”

Maine’s climate is ideal for small farm cultivation, Leavitt said, and he doesn’t believe the state ought to block what he considers to be a potentially bustling piece of economy.

“The purpose of the ordinance is to let the county, state and federal government know that many people believe the marijuana laws are not working,” Leavitt said.

According to Leavitt, Maine spends $15 million and thousands of hours every year on enforcement and prosecution of marijuana laws, resources that he suggested could be better spent on serious crimes like robbery, rape and murder.

While Sumner Selectman Cliff McNeil said, “I have no inclination to support this,” other selectmen passed a motion to include the ordinance on the August town meeting warrant. Considering the number of signatures on the petition, which are yet to be verified by Clerk Susan Runes, Chairman Mark Silber said he didn’t think they had any choice but to post it on the warrant.

According to Leavitt’s group, the ordinance would bar communities adopting it “from accepting state or federal funds if such funds require that the city use them to enforce marijuana laws.” It would also require government to “take immediate steps to legally tax and regulate marijuana use, cultivation and distribution,” and require police – local, county and state – to regularly submit reports on the number and type of marijuana arrests to each city or town that adopts the ordinance.

There’s no local police department in Sumner, and that prompted state Rep.-elect Teresea Hayes to ask what good the ordinance would do since the town has no input on how the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement. She also noted that the town does not have the authority to opt out of the part of the county budget used for marijuana enforcement.

Resident Thomas Obear said the ordinance “may not have any effect now, but may down the road.”

“We must start somewhere,” resident Joanna Reese said.

According to Lt. Hart Daley of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department, county police were not aware of the petitions.

If passed, he said, “we will continue to enforce state law involving drug offenses that occur within our jurisdiction irregardless of how people perceive them or how they prioritize them.

“We still consider drug offenses on the top of the list of our priorities,” Daley added.

When considering the petition Monday, Sumner officials were distracted by the complexity of the proposal and unsure it was workable as written.

Silber wondered if people would resent taking on the burden of the ordinance even if they favor the freedom it would provide, but Leavitt said the final ordinance could be stripped down to something that will work.

Silber suggested that supporters form a committee to work on the proposed ordinance, and present their work at a public hearing early next year.

Sun Journal staff writer Maggie Gill-Austern contributed to this report.

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