RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This past week, Portland, Maine, became the first city on the East Coast to legalize the possession of marijuana. By an overwhelming majority, voters passed a referendum that applies only to adults age 21 and over, and only in the privacy of their own homes. As Susan Sharon, of Maine Public Radio, reports, activists are hoping Portland is a bellwether for marijuana legalization.
SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: It's been a big year in the marijuana legalization movement. Not only did Colorado and Washington voters make marijuana legal last November but this week, voters in Colorado approved a ballot measure to tax marijuana sales. Michigan voters in three cities removed penalties for possession. And in Maine's largest city, voters passed an ordinance to legalize possession of up to 2 and a half ounces.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTIVISTS: (Chanting) As Maine goes, so goes the nation. As Maine goes, so goes the nation.
SHARON: At a victory party at a Portland pub Tuesday night, activists lit up a foot-long joint and passed it around in celebration - until they were asked to put it out. That won't change with passage of the ordinance. Smoking pot in public is still illegal. And marijuana remains outlawed at the state and federal level. Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck says not much will change as a result of the city's vote.
MICHAEL SAUSCHUCK: State law pre-empts an ordinance of this sort, a local ordinance of any sort.
SHARON: The other reason Sauschuck says it won't change much is because Maine is one of 13 states that has already decriminalized marijuana possession. It's just a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. And Portland Police aren't handing out very many citations. They issued 54 last year, and 68 the year before.
SAUSCHUCK: This is nothing we're going to be waiting around the corner to pounce on somebody who's smoking a joint somewhere, or possession of marijuana. But we will enforce the law when we come into contact with that.
SHARON: Health advocates warn that relaxing marijuana laws sends the wrong message to kids. Surveys suggest teens are smoking more pot since Maine voters authorized medical marijuana dispensaries four years ago. But Rob Kampia, of the Marijuana Policy Project, says the best way to restrict access is to treat marijuana like alcohol, and tax and regulate it. And that starts with legalization.
ROB KAMPIA: There's five states where we're lobbying in the state legislatures, and then five states where we think it's likely that we'll be able to pass ballot initiatives. This will all be over the course of the next four years.
SHARON: That includes most of the New England states. Kampia says they're being targeted for legalization efforts because polls show the chances for success are good.
KAMPIA: The public support is at 50 percent or higher in all these ballot initiative states - and really, quite frankly, the other states too, where we're lobbying the state legislatures.
SHARON: Kampia hopes the lopsided victory in Portland this week will build momentum in Maine and around the Northeast, the way voters in Denver did for the rest of Colorado. This year, the Maine Legislature rejected a bill to tax and regulate marijuana statewide by just a few votes. But State Rep. Diane Russell to plans to reintroduce a similar measure now that she has evidence about how her Portland constituents feel about the prohibition of pot.
STATE REP. DIANE RUSSELL: When 67 percent of voters say it's time for a change, that this is not working anymore, I think politicians would be smart to rethink their positions and to respect the will of the people.
SHARON: If the bill is unsuccessful, activists plan to try their luck at the ballot box in 2016.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.
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