MAINE: Although voters in Portland, Maine, supposedly legalized marijuana on Tuesday, that is not really what happened. As I noted last month, Question 1, which received support from more than two-thirds of voters, merely eliminated local penalties for possession of up to two and and half ounces. Under state law, possessing pot in amounts below that cutoff remains a civil violation punishable by fines ranging from $350 to $1,000.
Hence it is not surprising that Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck says the initiative won’t stop his officers from citing people for marijuana possession when they think it’s appropriate. But he also says that won’t be very often. “This doesn’t change anything for us in terms of enforcement,” Sauschuck told the Bangor Daily News. “But the actual statistics show this is a low priority for us.”
Between June 2011 and June 2012, Sauschuck says, the Portland Police Department issued just 68 marijuana summonses in a city of 66,000. By comparison, the New York Police Department in 2011 made more than 50,000 arrests and issued more than 8,000 summonses for marijuana possession in a city of 8.2 million. New York City has a population that’s 124 times as big, but it nabbed 868 times as many pot smokers. By that measure, New York is seven times as intolerant of marijuana as Portland.
The Portland Police Department’s attitude toward marijuana consumers seems similar to the Seattle Police Department’s. Asked if he plans to cite people who publicly celebrated the passage of Question 1 by lighting up a joint and memorialized the moment in photographs, Sauschuck replied, “Let’s think about resource allocation. We’re not going to go after these guys for smoking a joint.”
So if Question 1 (which officially takes effect in a month) won’t have much of a practical effect, what was the point? As I suggested last month, the Question 1 campaign was a dry run for statewide legalization efforts in Maine and elsewhere. Its messaging focused on the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol, with ads featuring respectable-looking pot smokers asking, “Why should I be punished for making the safer choice?” Judging from the large majority the initiative attracted, that message, which also was prominent in Colorado’s successful legalization campaign, resonates with voters.