LEWISTON — City voters will likely decide in November whether they want to join Portland in sending a message to lawmakers in Augusta and Washington that marijuana should be made legal for adult recreational use.

Advocates from the Maine Marijuana Policy Project on Friday met their deadline for turning in 859 signatures from registered Lewiston voters, requiring the City Council to pass an ordinance change or place a question on the November ballot.

David Boyer, political director for the Maine Marijuana Policy Project, said his group has collected more than 1,250 signatures. City election officials are in the process of verifying the signatures from Lewiston voters, and once that process is complete, the question will be added to the ballot.

The ordinance change would allow adults older than 21 to possess up to 1½ ounces of marijuana. Selling and distributing marijuana would still be criminal offenses.

Boyer likened the prohibition on marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933.

“Alcohol prohibition was a complete failure,” Boyer said. “All it did was criminalize millions of Americans and gave Al Capone and his violent bootleggers a job, and it did nothing to stop the flow of alcohol — just like marijuana prohibition has done nothing to stop the flow of marijuana into our communities.” 

Boyer said legalized marijuana would force drug dealers out of business and replace drug rings with a regulated industry that would require licensing and quality standards, making marijuana use safe. Boyer also argued that the legal use and abuse of alcohol is far more dangerous to society than the legal use of marijuana would be.

Joining Boyer on Friday was Lewiston City Councilor Leslie Dubois, who said she believes the question should be settled by voters. Dubois is a candidate for the state Legislature, running as a Republican for the city’s open House District 60 seat against Democrat Jared Golden.

Dubois said she doesn’t use marijuana but believes if medical marijuana is safe to use, then recreational marijuana would be equally safe.

“It’s not my decision to make; it is the Lewiston voters’ decision,” Dubois said.

If Lewiston made recreational marijuana legal, it wouldn’t damage the city’s image, she said.

“The police have better fish to fry than trying to go after the one-ounce marijuana smokers in their own homes,” she said.

If approved by voters, the change would mostly be symbolic, because state and federal laws making marijuana a controlled and illegal drug would still supersede the ordinance, law enforcement officials have said.

Voters in Lewiston, South Portland and York will see similar questions after a 2013 vote in Portland that made possession of up to 2½ ounces of marijuana legal for people over 21. Portland voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, with 67 percent voting in favor. 

The vote mirrors national polls that suggest more Americans are supportive of a federal law change that would make marijuana legal for adults to use.

A Gallup Poll released in October 2013 suggested for the first time that 58 percent of Americans believed marijuana should be made legal.

If legal marijuana is approved by voters in the state’s two largest cities, Boyer said he hopes that lawmakers will move ahead with legislation in 2015 to legalize and regulate marijuana.

He said the Maine Marijuana Policy Project was moving forward with its plans to push for a statewide ballot initiative in 2016, in case lawmakers reject legalization.

At a minimum, lawmakers in those cities would have to recognize the will of the voters they represent, Boyer said.  

In 2014, the State House came within three votes of passing a bill that would have sent a question to voters statewide, while allowing the Legislature to write the legalization law, were the ballot measure to pass.

Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational marijuana. Maine is among dozens of states that have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and one of a handful of states that have legalized marijuana for medical use.

Opposing the Lewiston ballot question is another citizen group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Scott Gagnon, a spokesman for the group and a local substance-abuse counselor, said making recreational marijuana legal sends the wrong message to children that marijuana is safe. 

Gagnon has noted that teen use of marijuana has ticked back up in Androscoggin County after legal changes that made medical marijuana more accessible. He said marijuana use by middle-school children in Androscoggin County has increased by 50 percent in recent years.

“We are full-in to oppose this,” Gagnon said. He said the move for Lewiston voters was fiscally unsound because it would contribute to an increase in substance-abuse problems.

“Lewiston taxpayers share in the over $1.3 billion annual costs related to substance abuse in Maine — a cost that continues to escalate,” Gagnon said.

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