AUGUSTA — The Marijuana Policy Project will launch new efforts to legalize recreational marijuana use this fall in Lewiston, South Portland and York, a move that leaders in two of those cities said caught them to some degree off guard.

While South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins said he has suspected since election night in November 2013 that his city could be the next battleground in the legalization debate, officials in York and Lewiston said Tuesday that they were surprised by the news.

David Boyer, Maine’s political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, said Tuesday that his organization will attempt to put a marijuana legalization question on ballots in all three municipalities through local citizen petitions. He said the question his group hopes to put to voters will be similar to a local ordinance passed in Portland last November that legalizes possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana by adults.

“Our point really is to keep the discussion going and to show that this wasn’t something just unique to Portland,” said Boyer. “We think that Mainers across the state believe that adults shouldn’t be punished for marijuana possession.”

Boyer said seeking legalization in York, South Portland and Lewiston is an effort to further gauge Mainers’ attitude toward lifting legal prohibitions against marijuana use and to force debate of the issue in this year’s gubernatorial and legislative election campaigns.

Boyer said he expects another attempt to legalize marijuana statewide in the Legislature next year — a tax-and-regulate measure failed last year — and if that doesn’t work, his organization will try to gather enough signatures to force a statewide vote in 2016. However, he said he doesn’t expect the Marijuana Policy Project to take its fight to any municipalities past the three targeted this year.

“I think there’s a good shot at passing something via the Legislature, but I wouldn’t expect any more local initiatives after this year given that there’s a lot of work to be done for the statewide initiative on top of the lobbying effort next year in Augusta,” he said.

Asked how his organization chose the communities to target, Boyer said South Portland neighbors Portland, York is close to possible future initiatives in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and that Lewiston is viewed as a battleground in the governor’s race.

Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald, a former drug detective who said he is “totally against” marijuana legalization, said he first heard that the debate was coming to Lewiston on Tuesday afternoon. He said he thought Lewiston is on the list because of unfair assumptions about the state’s second-largest city.

“I would say it’s because we have this reputation which is basically kind of untrue, like we’re the sin city of Maine,” said Macdonald. “Actually we’re pretty tame here now. We’re out there, cracking down on drug use and our Police Department is doing an excellent job.”

York Town Manager Robert Yandow said he also heard the news Tuesday morning. He doesn’t know how York residents or selectmen will react.

“I was surprised when I heard the intent that York was one of the communities selected,” he said. “York was selected because of its proximity to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It has nothing to do with the registered voters in the town of York. We’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out.”

Googins, South Portland’s police chief, said he will lobby strenuously against the measure.

“I will, within my powers as chief of police, do what I can to make sure the public is informed of why it’s a bad idea,” he said. “The local initiatives in my opinion are just an effort … to chip away at the illegalization of the drug at the present time. … Marijuana is clearly a gateway drug and I’ve seen in my long career in law enforcement the negative impact it has on people from Maine, primarily the young people.”

Scott Gagnon, a volunteer state coordinator for SAM Maine, which is an offshoot of the national Project SAM, or Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his organization’s chief concern is the spread of a perception, especially among youth, that marijuana is harmless. He said he expects statewide legalizations in Colorado and Washington state will provide fodder for his argument.

“Now that Colorado has opened up their [marijuana] shops, I think we’re going to learn what is the true impact,” said Gagnon, who added that SAM Maine has active members in South Portland, York and Lewiston and will vigorously oppose the ordinance change attempts. “We’re already starting to see some issues in Colorado. I don’t think [more widespread legalization] is a foregone conclusion if we learn from Colorado and Washington.”

Paul McCarrier of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine continued his long-standing opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“It will just raise more issues for medical marijuana patients,” he said. “It will dilute the arguments of those who need it. … Philosophically, we’re not opposed to legalization but the devil is in the details.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, and independent Eliot Cutler, who are the leading opponents to Republican Gov. Paul LePage in the 2014 governor’s race, said in written statements to the BDN on Tuesday that they have concerns about the spreading legalization of marijuana, but neither said whether he supports it. The LePage administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Cutler said if he were governor he’d appoint a task force to advise the executive branch about statewide legalization, including how marijuana would be taxed and regulated and kept out of the hands of children and adolescents.

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

Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said Michaud also said his chief concern is how marijuana legalization affects children and young adults.

“He has spoken briefly with Gov. [John] Hickenlooper in Colorado and believes that there are important lessons that Maine should consider as other states go through the process of legalization that should inform what we do in Maine,” said Reinholt.

Possession of small quantities of marijuana is a civil offense in Maine, and the state’s attorney general, Janet Mills, reminded Portland residents as the local ordinance took effect that it does not supersede state and federal laws.

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