Voters in Maine’s largest city opted to legalize possession of marijuana on Nov. 5, but the chief of police says that won’t change the way his officers deal with pot.
“This doesn’t change anything for us in terms of enforcement,” Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the day after the vote.
That may not matter all that much, however.
Question 1, which passed by almost 70 percent, makes it legal within city limits to possess up to 2.5 ounces of pot. It’s currently a violation, similar to a traffic ticket, to possess pot, and the maximum penalty is a $600 fine.
Voters wanted to remove that penalty, but Sauschuck said that’s not their call. Pot law is written by the state, not cities, he said. State laws “pre-empt local ordinances,” and officers will continue to “use their discretion” when issuing marijuana tickets.
Portland is one of a growing number of cities jumping ahead of their states to end prohibition. Lansing, Mich., also voted to legalize pot on Nov. 5.
Sauschuck’s comments may give local tokers pause, but it’s not clear his policy will hurt them much. For one thing, the chief said he already considers cannabis enforcement a low priority, giving out about one ticket a week.
For another, legalization ordinances usually do have an effect, even when everyone insists they won’t: Cops are generally less likely to enforce a law when residents have formally rejected it at the polls. As Sauschuck noted, his officers do have discretion.
Portland, like other places that have legalized (including two states, Washington and Colorado), appears to be on the cutting edge of a wave about to sweep the nation. Supporters who backed the Maine initiative hoped their efforts would spark a wider initiative to legalize in Maine.
An attempt to make pot legal by way of the state Legislature failed by just four votes earlier this year. Another effort is planned for 2014.
“With Tuesday’s vote, it’s now clear Mainers are ready to move forward with responsibly regulating all adult marijuana sales,” said state Rep. Dianne Russell, who authored the bill. “We are calling on city officials to respect the will of the voters, and state leaders to get ahead of this issue with a Maine approach to taxing and regulating this commodity, much like we do alcohol. It’s time to stop rewarding drug cartels and start rewarding responsible business owners, while funding important state priorities with new tax revenue.”