Bill To Ban Local Votes on Legalizing Marijuana Draws Fire In Maine
A legislator wants any decisions on legalization made at the state or federal level, but critics say his bill conflicts with the Constitution and home rule traditions.
Since the fall of 2013, voters in Portland and South Portland have approved local ballot questions legalizing recreational marijuana, while similar efforts have failed in two other communities. Those votes coincided with a growing national debate – and successful legalization drives in other states – about whether pot should be regulated more like alcohol instead of as an illegal drug.
Now, as momentum builds for statewide legalization referendum campaigns in 2016, an independent lawmaker from Newfield is trying to slam the brakes on future ballot questions on the pot issue in cities and towns.
Rep. James Campbell’s bill, L.D. 167, says that “a petition or order that seeks to legalize the recreational use of marijuana within a municipality may not be approved for inclusion on the ballot or considered at any town meeting.”
“Recreational marijuana is illegal on the federal level and municipalities should not be allowed to ignore federal law and attempt to legalize recreational marijuana anyway,” said Campbell, who submitted written testimony but was unable to attend Monday’s hearing on the bill before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee.
Maine law allows municipalities to regulate the sale of alcohol through local elections. Several dozen towns impose some restrictions – such as prohibiting Sunday sales – on liquor or beer. Campbell’s bill would take away a level of local control, say its critics.
AFFRONT TO HOME RULE, CONSTITUTION
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Municipal Association urged lawmakers to reject the bill.
Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for ACLU of Maine, said the proposal would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by targeting or trying to regulate a particular message or view – in this case, that marijuana should be legal for personal, recreational use.
“Courts almost always find restrictions of speech reviewed under strict scrutiny to be unconstitutional,” Amarasingham told committee members. “This bill is plainly an unconstitutional, content-based regulation that discriminates against the viewpoint of Mainers who favor the legalization of marijuana.”
Several speakers, including the Maine Municipal Association’s Garrett Corbin, expressed concerns that the legislation could trample on the “home rule” tradition strongly defended by municipalities and voters alike.
“Regardless of the subject matter (of the referendum), that is a dangerous road to go down,” Corbin said.
NO NEW LOCAL INITIATIVES PLANNED
Medicinal marijuana has been legal in Maine for more than a decade. The more recent push to allow the drug for recreational use has sparked a heated debate.
In 2013, Portland became the first East Coast community where voters legalized recreational marijuana use, although city police leaders stress that officers have the discretion to charge people for marijuana possession – a civil offense in Maine – because the drug remains illegal under state and federal law.
South Portland voters approved recreational marijuana use in November.
York officials exercised their own version of local control last year by refusing to put a legalization measure on the ballot, saying marijuana regulation is decided at the state and federal level. Lewiston voters rejected a legalization initiative in November.
David Boyer, Maine political director for the national Marijuana Policy Project, which backed the four municipal ballot initiatives in Maine, said Campbell is late to the game because the project is not planning any more local referendum campaigns. His organization is one of two hoping to put a legalization initiative on the ballot statewide in 2016.
“We are crafting a statewide initiative for 2016, but we would be against this bill as well,” Boyer said in an interview.
DECISIONS AT LOCAL LEVEL OPPOSED
Scott Gagnon, Maine state director of the anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said York officials got it right when they refused to send a legalization initiative to the town’s voters last year.
“We know that the efforts to legalize marijuana in Maine will continue,” Gagnon said. “We know it will continue to be a policy debated in the state Legislature and likely at the ballot box in 2016. We welcome that debate. But that is where the debate belongs, at the state and federal levels.”
The State and Local Government Committee has not yet scheduled a work session on the bill.
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