AUGUSTA — Maine voters could face competing pot ballot measures in 2016, both seeking to make recreational marijuana legal.

But the split between a national legalization advocacy group and a home-grown Maine organization could divide support for marijuana reforms that most polls suggest are favored by a majority of the state’s voters.

On Wednesday, Paul McCarrier, president of the group Legalize Maine, announced a signature petition drive that would put the question before voters.

Also likely to be collecting signatures for 2016 is the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that has helped push legalization in other states, including Colorado and Washington.

McCarrier said the two groups tried to work together. “Unfortunately, there were irreconcilable differences between both our vision and with what they were putting forward,” he said of the Marijuana Policy Project. “We do not believe that this local marijuana industry should be a giveaway to big liquor and big tobacco,” he said, referring to the MPP’s support from liquor and tobacco interests. 

Legalize Maine will have to collect more than 60,000 signatures from registered voters to place its question on the ballot.


McCarrier said his organization aims to make Maine “the weed basket for New England.”

A handful of state lawmakers in recent years have offered bills to put the issue before voters. In 2013, legislation sponsored by state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, missed passage in the Maine House on a 67-71 vote.

Russell will again offer a bill this session that would craft state policy around legalizing and taxing marijuana, and then seek to have voters ratify that policy at the ballot box, also in 2016.

Russell said the idea of competing ballot measures offered by two groups should prompt lawmakers to act.

“This is the last session the Legislature can get ahead of this issue,” Russell said. “If we pass this this session, then why would people collect signatures if the Legislature has already done it?”

Russell said the fear that lobbyists for large alcohol and tobacco interests will have an undue influence on any Maine law is unfounded.


“No matter which way it gets done, changes will be made to the law eventually and lobbyists will probably have some influence on that,” Russell said. “The more that lawmakers can work with advocates to set a solid law and leave the question of whether to legalize or not up to the people, the better the chance that that policy framework will stay secure.”

David Boyer, the Maine political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, said he was surprised McCarrier’s group was going it alone.

Boyer’s group was a driving force behind the successful legalization effort for recreational marijuana in Portland in 2013, and efforts in South Portland and Lewiston in 2014. South Portland approved an ordinance change; voters in Lewiston rejected it, 55 percent to 45 percent. Despite the votes, marijuana possession and use is still illegal in all Maine communities under state law.

Boyer said that until last week he was under the impression the groups would work together, but apparently McCarrier’s group had decided to do its own petition drive.

“We were in talks about working together and it seemed to be making real headway before they unexpectedly decided to go their own way,” Boyer said.

The legislation that McCarrier’s Legalize Maine group is promoting does not include any authorization for blood testing to determine whether a driver is impaired by marijuana use. It’s a provision that has helped sell legalization to voters in other states, including Washington and Colorado.


McCarrier said the science was not sound enough yet to support such a provision. Boyer said his national organization believes law enforcement should have some additional methods to test for impairment, but he did not elaborate.

“We are open to it,” Boyer said. “We listen to the state troopers and they have a need for a more viable testing method, so we are definitely open to that.”

Boyer said depending on the details of any statewide ballot initiative offered by the Legislature, his organization might support that instead of mounting its own petition drive.

“If it’s what we consider a good bill that effectively ends marijuana prohibition in Maine, and regulates and taxes it like alcohol, and legalizes marijuana use for adults over 21 including home cultivation, we would likely support that,” Boyer said.

He said if Maine lawmakers went that route it would be a national first and “a big win for the legalization movement, because it would be the first time a state legislature has decided to do that.”

Opponents to legalization, including much of Maine’s education and law enforcement communities, have said legalization would increase the use of the drug by teens, bring additional drug crime to the state and have a negative impact on users’ physical and mental health, especially among younger people whose brains are still growing.


Supporters have said the jobs and tax revenue created by legalized marijuana would be a boon to the state’s budget and economy.

Scott Gagnon, the volunteer coordinator for Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, has said the close vote in South Portland and the rejection of a legalization ordinance in Lewiston in 2014 show Maine voters are not fully sold on legalized recreational marijuana.

Gagnon said Wednesday that advocates for legal marijuana tout the economic benefits, but he said a true “cost-benefit analysis” that considers the societal costs of legalization has not been done.

One example of unaccounted-for costs in other states includes the increased emergency room visits by those who have overdosed on edible marijuana products in Colorado. “So there are costs to this, especially for those who are uninsured,” Gagnon said.

He said the message of legalization to youths would be that marijuana is safe to use, even though, he said, most of the science available now doesn’t bear that out. He said it’s much like tobacco in the 1950s.

“If we knew then what we know now about the dangers of tobacco use,  I suspect we would have made some very different policy decisions back then,” Gagnon said.

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