PORTLAND — Supporters of an initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana will start using city buses to promote marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol that’s also less likely to cause a hangover or make people rowdy.

“Why should I be punished for making the safer choice?” each of the signs asks, with the word “safer” underlined.

But Joanna Morrissey, project manager for 21 Reasons, said the advertising campaign is misguided because it reaches the wrong target audience.

Morrissey said METRO buses can be seen by youth. Some Portland students ride METRO buses to school.

“We are disappointed in the campaign’s aggressiveness and recklessness, especially in the message that it will be sending youth,” Morrissey said.

Her organization is a coalition whose goal is to build a healthy community that fosters the drug free development of all youth. It partners with law enforcement, schools, businesses, parents and youth to achieve its goals.

The “Yes on Question 1” ads depict smiling adults who appear to be well dressed and clean cut, rather than depicting pot-smoking stereotypes.

In one, a smiling middle-aged woman with gray hair says: “I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it is less harmful to my body.” In another, a young professional woman with black-rimmed glasses says: “I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it’s less toxic, so there’s no hangover.”

A middle-aged man in a polo shirt says: “I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it doesn’t make me rowdy or reckless.”

The ads are funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has made Maine one of 10 target states where it hopes to legalize marijuana by 2016.

In November, Portland voters will be asked to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults over the age of 21.

“We have these ads to spark a discussion with Portlanders about whether people should be punished” for using marijuana, said David Boyer, Marijuana Policy Project’s Maine political Director.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but Maine is one of 20 states to allow the use of medical marijuana.

Portland’s Nov. 5 referendum proposal, if it passes, would allow anyone over the age of 21 to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. If approved, people would still be prohibited from selling marijuana or using it on public property and roadways. Landlords would be able to prohibit its use on their properties, too.

The petition effort to put the question on the ballot was led by the Portland Green Independent Committee. It’s being supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the NAACP of Maine and the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine.

Boyer said the ad campaign is designed to change negative perceptions of marijuana, which the federal government lists as controlled substances comparable to heroin.

“We’re simply combating the decades of lies from the government regarding the relative safety of marijuana compared to other substances, such as alcohol,” Boyer said.

Youth substance abuse counselors, meanwhile, have worried that the ongoing debate over Portland’s referendum will inadvertently increase drug use among minors by reducing the perceived risk.

Morrissey says there has to be a better way for Boyer’s group to target its campaign toward adults and not teenagers, who are too young to vote.

“There are other avenues that are far more responsible than using a city bus,” Morrissey said. “What they’re doing is completely irresponsible.”

David Faulkner is the Executive Director of Day One, a statewide agency based in South Portland that treats teen drug and alcohol abuse. Its mission is to reduce substance abuse among Maine youth so that they can lead productive, healthy and rewarding lives.

Last year, 65 percent of the youth under the age of 18 admitted for treatment by Day One indicated that marijuana was their primary drug of choice, Faulkner said. Twenty two percent identified alcohol as their drug of choice.

Faulkner said many youth start using marijuana before moving onto to other drugs. Faulkner described the bus ads as “disturbing” because they will send the wrong message to youth.

“We are very concerned because of the mixed message it sends to youth. We know that when young people think there is less harm in using a drug, they are more likely to use that drug,” said Liz Blackwell-Moore, a substance abuse prevention specialist with the Communities Promoting Health Program in South Portland.

Blackwell-Moore said the Portland campaign could encourage youth to use marijuana, making them believe that smoking pot is not risky. She said studies have shown that marijuana use by teens can lead to car accidents, mental health issues and in some cases depression.

“Placing an ad on a METRO bus is like having a billboard. This will only make it harder to get our message across,” Blackwell-Moore predicted.

The ads will appear on four city buses and at two bus shelters, and cost $2,500, Boyer said.

METRO buses provide direct public transportation services for Portland, Westbrook and Falmouth, with connections to other local and regional transportation providers. The service is funded through a combination of federal, state and local funding, as well as user fares.

Bonny Rodden, a former journalist and Falmouth town councilor, serves as president of METRO’s board of directors. Contacted Tuesday night, Rodden said she was unaware of the content of the ads and said she may ask her colleagues on the board to take a closer at their appropriateness.

“We were aware that there were going to be ads but we did not discuss the content because it is a Freedom of Speech issue,” Rodden said.

The ads contain a disclaimer: “The posting of this ad does not constitute or imply an endorsement, recommendation or favoring by METRO.”

Boyer said his group did not run into difficulty getting the ads approved, other than METRO needing to approve the creative layout.

METRO has a policy against advertising the sale of substances such as alcohol or tobacco, Boyer said. The issue was raised, but since the ad supports a specific referendum question being put to Portland voters, it was approved, he said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:[email protected] Twitter: @randybillings Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:[email protected]