The drive to legalize marijuana won new momentum across the country Tuesday as voters approved pro-pot ballot measures in Maine, Colorado and Michigan.
Portland, Me., became the first East Coast City to legalize marijuana. Colorado approved a 25 percent tax on pot. And voters in the Michigan cities of Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale decided to remove all penalties for possession.
Buoyed by their success at the polls, the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, said it would try to get marijuana fully legalized in 13 additional states by 2017.
Portland voters opted to allow residents to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. The campaign ignited controversy after proponents spent $2,500 to buy pro-pot billboards on city buses and in bus shelters.
"Most Portlanders, like most Americans, are fed up with our nation's failed marijuana laws," said David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group.
But while the legalization measure won easily in Maine's largest city, it may be more difficult for pro-pot forces to win across the state. Legalization backers now hope to get the issue on the statewide ballot in 2016.
Officials with Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), an opposition group led by former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, said they plan to launch a statewide affiliate to gear up for the vote.
"Maine is on the brink of creating a massive marijuana industry that will inevitably target teens and other vulnerable populations," Kennedy, the group's national chairman, said in a statement. "Misconceptions about marijuana are becoming more and more prevalent."
Kennedy said it's time "to clear the smoke and get the facts out about this drug."
The votes were the first ballot initiatives since last November, when both Colorado and Washington state approved the recreational use of marijuana for all adults 21 and older. Those plans are set to take effect next year.
In Colorado, voters gave the green light to a 25 percent pot tax that includes a 15 percent excise tax to pay for school construction and a 10 percent tax to pay for enforcement.
"Colorado is demonstrating to the rest of the nation that it is possible to end marijuana prohibition and successfully regulate marijuana like alcohol," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project in Denver.
Tvert said the measure will raise millions of dollars each year for the state's schools, instead of having the money diverted to drug cartels. He said it "only a matter of time" before other states will adopt similar plans.
Many cities in Colorado, including Denver and Boulder, are already eyeing marijuana as a possible source of revenue and considering ballot measures that would impose local taxes on retail pot sales.
So far, a total of eight U.S. cities have now voted to legalize marijuana or to remove penalties for possession, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
In Michigan on Tuesday, voters in Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale joined the cities of Detroit and Flint, where voters last year decided to remove all penalties for adult possession.
In Colorado, the cities of Breckenridge and Nederland voted to do away with penalties. That happened before the entire state last year voted to allow recreational use, beginning on Jan. 1.
The Marijuana Policy Project said it’s now aiming to legalize marijuana in another 13 states in the next four years: seven by ballot measures, and six by state legislatures.
If a petition drive succeeds, Alaska voters are expected to consider legalization first, in 2014.
In 2016, pro-pot backers will try to get the issue on the ballot in Maine, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada.
And they'll try to get state legislators to legalize marijuana in Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
With a Gallup Poll released last month showing that 58 percent of Americans now back legalization, supporters are confident that more states will jump on the bandwagon.
To fight the efforts, Project SAM officials said they want to warn the public that legalization could create a "Big Marijuana" tobacco-style industry. And they said it's time to have an "adult conversation" about health effects and the possibility of increased drug addiction among teens.
That discussion is already underway in Maine.
"This is not about demonizing or legalizing marijuana, but rather educating the public about the most misunderstood drug in the state," said Scott Gagnon, who will serve as Maine's coordinator for Project SAM.