Despite Maine legalizing cannabis, much work is left to be done at the local level. In 2016, Question 1 was approved at the state level but was rejected by a majority of towns. Although support for legalizing cannabis has increased since then, many voters feel differently when it comes to their own backyards. If the cannabis industry plans to expand out of Maine’s biggest cities, it must refine its messaging and strategy.
I’ve talked with plenty of voters who supported the referendum in 2016 but voted against a local opt-in ordinance. Voters in many Maine towns, especially those that rely on tourists, are worried that allowing cannabis businesses will fundamentally “change the character of the town.” Ironically enough, I have heard this from voters who also consume cannabis. Talk about a cognitive dissonance! Additionally, there seems to be no issue with the local bars and grocery stores that sell a much deadlier and more addictive substance. Our industry must figure out how to quell these fears.
Legalization in Maine narrowly passed during a presidential election, and history shows that cannabis votes are most successful with high voter turnout. Groups looking to pass an opt-in ordinance should consider the timing when launching a local campaign. I predict the November 2020 ballot will be the industry's next big shot at passing a wave of opt-in ordinances, as we will be voting on the presidential election, a hotly contested statewide US Senate and rural US Congressional race, and perhaps a citizen’s initiative to ban the Central Maine Power corridor.
Towns can approve an opt-in ordinance through the town council/selectboard or through a vote of the people. A referendum can be a successful means to get past town councilors, but it’s not certain the voters will approve for the reasons noted above. Anyone can take out a petition and collect signatures to place an opt-in ordinance on the ballot, and many towns only require a few hundred signatures to place the ordinance on the ballot. Another way to be part of moving cannabis forward is to consider running for local office — often seats go uncontested in many Maine towns. Please reach out if you are interested in running a local campaign; I’d be happy to help.
David Boyer is a cannabis legalization advocate and political consultant. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.