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Judge Revives Referendum Proposal to Legalize Marijuana

A.J. Higgins reports on marijuana legalization.

A Superior Court judge has overruled Maine’s secretary of state, granting new life to a referendum drive that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Justice Michaela Murphy concluded that state officials applied a vague, subjective and unduly burdensome interpretation of the law when they invalidated the petition signatures that were submitted to place the issue on the November ballot.

Critical to Murphy’s ruling is the process state officials used to gauge the authenticity of a notary who signed off on oaths administered to petition circulators.

A month ago, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap rejected more than 31,000 signatures, based on his conclusion that the notary’s signature didn’t match a signature that the state had kept on file. But Murphy has found that requiring a notary’s signature to appear identically on every petition signed is unreasonable and abridges the constitutional right to initiative.

“We see this as a definite victory,” says David Boyer, the campaign manager for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. “We know that the notary signed them, we know that the voters signed them and we look forward to bringing our case to voters in November. So now it’s going back to the state, they have to re-review all the petitions, actually look at them this time and will see that the signatures are consistent for the notary and we expect to be on the ballot this November.”

In her ruling, Murphy found that Dunlap committed an error of law by applying a vague, subjective and-or unduly burdensome interpretation of the law to invalidate the signatures. And she said the state presented no evidence correlating the variability of a notary’s signature with incidences of fraud in administering the circulator’s oath.

Dunlap’s office has three days to respond to the ruling, and in a written statement says it’s still considering its options. It could appeal to the Maine Supreme Court, conduct a further review of the signatures or simply validate those that were in dispute.

If the signatures are approved, Dunlap would then be required to forward the proposed law to the Legislature. Lawmakers would be able to either enact it or send it on to the voters for the November ballot.

That’s an outcome that opponents of the initiative had hoped to avoid.

“Our concern is that this judgment opens the door to more of that sort of thing, where notaries are not properly witnessing the oaths of circulators, so that just opens the door up to all kinds of issues in terms of fraud, frankly, around signatures, especially when there are just more and more of these campaigns that are being fueled by out-of-state money,” says Scott Gagnon, spokesman for Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Still, Gagnon said that if the marijuana question is approved for the ballot, his nationally based group will be on the front lines of the effort to defeat it.

If voters approve it, possession of up to 2 1/2 ounces would be legal. Mainers would also be able to grow their own marijuana plants and, with community approval, purchase the drug in retail stores.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public

A.J. came to Maine Public Radio in August 2007 after a stint as a staff writer for Blethen Maine Newspapers. His news coverage for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta also appeared in the Waterville Morning Sentinel, the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram. Prior to joining the Kennebec Journal, A.J. served for 13 years as political editor and State House bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News.

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