Maine voters may have just missed their chance to make their state one of the next to legalize marijuana.
The Maine Secretary of State’s office announced on Wednesday that cannabis reform advocates failed to collect enough valid signatures from registered voters in order to qualify their initiative for November’s ballot. Pro-legalization forces with the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA) turned in a total of 99,229 signatures last month, but officials say that a maximum of only 51,543 were valid. The campaign needed 61,123 valid signatures to qualify.
The measure would have allowed adults over 21 years of age to possess up to two and a half ounces of marijuana and grow up to six flowering plants and 12 immature plants. The state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry would regulate the newly legal cannabis industry, and the measure would impose a 10% tax on retail sales. Cities and towns would have the right to prohibit marijuana businesses.
But now, voters may not get a chance to decide whether to enact the measure.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap invalidated approximately 17,000 of the voters’ signatures because the signature of the notary on the petitions did not match the signature on file with the state, he said.
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which funded much of the signature gathering effort and has conducted a public education campaign in the state over the past several years, says it is exploring its options to challenge the Secretary of State’s decision. Through its CRMLA committee, the group said it was “disappointed” by the news.
“It appears that more than 17,000 valid signatures from registered Maine voters were excluded from the count because the signature of a single notary — whose notary commission has not expired — did not exactly match the signature the state has on file for that notary,” the organization said in a statement. “We are exploring all legal means available to appeal this determination, and we sincerely hope that 17,000-plus Maine citizens will not be disenfranchised due to a handwriting technicality.”
Maine would have been the second state to officially qualify a legalization initiative for this year’s ballot, after Nevada. Florida officials have also certified a medical cannabis amendment. It is expected that advocates will soon secure full legalization initiatives in Arizona, California and Massachusetts, while medical marijuana seems likely to qualify in Ohio. Local activists are also pushing a full legalization initiative in Michigan and a medical cannabis one in Missouri, but those efforts have not yet secured the backing of major national organizations with track records of qualifying ballot measures.
Elsewhere in New England, lawmakers in Vermont and Rhode Island are considering legislation to end marijuana prohibition. Vermont could be the first state to enact legalization through the state legislature instead of via a ballot initiative if a bill that passed the Senate last month makes its way through the House of Representatives. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has pledged to sign the legislation into law if it reaches his desk.
Anti-legalization advocates welcomed Wednesday’s development.
“This is a huge sigh of relief for Mainers and our public health community, especially in a period where we are facing a serious and growing opiate crisis,” Scott M. Gagnon, Maine director for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told Marijuana.com.
The failure to qualify for the ballot comes amidst growing sense of unity in the state’s marijuana reform movement that advocates hoped could propel them to victory on Election Day. Until late last year, there were two anti-prohibition groups competing to qualify an initiative. But in October, the effort being funded initially by MPP stopped circulating its own measure for signatures and instead got behind the homegrown effort of Legalize Maine. Together, they turned in approximately 100,000 signatures last month.
A poll last spring found that 65 percent of likely Maine voters support legalizing marijuana.
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett