LEWISTON — The leading candidates for governor in Maine danced around the subject of whether the state should follow the city of Portland’s lead and legalize recreational marijuana.

Portland voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a city ordinance that legalizes possession of up to 2½ ounces of marijuana for personal use. The change, however, may be largely symbolic. State and federal laws making possession illegal would supersede the ordinance, according to law enforcement.

The group that pushed the ordinance has indicated it plans to pursue a statewide referendum in 2016 to legalize recreational use.

A spokeswoman for the Democrat in the race, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said he would want to see more details of any bill that would legalize marijuana in Maine. 

“He is concerned that such efforts could make the drug more accessible to children and teens,” Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said in a prepared statement. “The congressman is willing to sit down to discuss the issue with advocates for the law change and with representatives from the public health and law enforcement communities.”

Eliot Cutler, the independent in the race, said he had similar concerns that legalizing marijuana for adults would expand access for children and adolescents.

“I think my biggest concern with legalizing marijuana is that it could send a message to our kids that drug use is OK,” Cutler said.

However, Cutler said, he believes the prohibition on marijuana isn’t working.

“It has permitted the development of a thriving, unregulated and untaxed black market in non-medicinal marijuana that is easily accessed by children and adolescents, as well as adults,” he said.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign staff referred the issue to the governor’s communications staff in Augusta.

“Gov. LePage has taken an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution and observe the laws of the state of Maine and he intends to do just that,” press secretary Adrienne Bennett wrote in an email message. 

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said Tuesday’s vote was a clear mandate that Mainers are ready for a change.

Earlier this year, a bill sponsored by Russell that would have sent the question of legalization to Maine voters, was defeated by four votes in the House of Representatives.

Russell said she is introducing another bill for 2014 that would ask voters to approve legalization but would include provisions to create a youth prevention task force.

Russell’s bill allows the Legislature to set the laws around legalization and to create a structure for regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana for recreational use.

Russell was heartened to see the leading candidates for governor were keeping open minds about the issue, she said. “If people have an open mind and start seeing the evidence, I think we can make a pretty good case for why legalization makes sense.”

She said the idea that minors would gain greater access to marijuana if it were made legal isn’t sustained by the facts.

“Under prohibition, more than 80 percent of high school seniors nationwide say they have easy access to marijuana,” Russell said. “In Maine alone, 36 percent of high school students say they have tried marijuana at least once. If this is an example of how prohibition is succeeding in protecting our children, I’d really hate to see it fail.”

Of the three leading candidates, only Cutler said he had used marijuana.

Michaud has never smoked or used marijuana, according to Reinholt, who said the campaign has had numerous conversations about the topic since the Portland vote Tuesday.

“But no, Mike has never smoked pot,” Reinholt said.

Cutler said he smoked pot two or three times, but it was “many years ago.”

Bennett said she had not had an opportunity to ask LePage if he had ever smoked or otherwise used marijuana. 

Russell said she doesn’t use marijuana but is involved in the effort for legalization because prohibition has been a failed policy.

“Actually, I’m more of a bourbon girl myself,” Russell said Thursday.

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