AUGUSTA — The Maine House on Friday narrowly defeated a bill that would have put a question on the state ballot asking voters whether marijuana should be legalized in Maine.

The House voted 71–67 to kill the bill, with Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the issue.

Supporters said they’re pleased with the narrow margin because it gives them hope that they can gain support in the future, either in the Legislature or at the ballot box. They are planning tentatively to launch their own citizen initiative to put the question on the state ballot in 2016.

The vote was “definitely a nail-biter,” said David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s a sign that there is a lot of support in the Legislature and in Maine for ending marijuana prohibitions.”

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group backed the successful initiative campaign in Colorado last year that legalized the possession, use and distribution of marijuana in that state.

Although a two-thirds majority vote is needed to put a referendum question on the state ballot, a simple majority would have gained national media attention and energized marijuana supporters in Maine, Boyer said.

There will be additional votes in the House and Senate.

The bill, L.D. 1229, was sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

Russell’s bill, originally 26 pages long, stipulated how marijuana would be taxed and regulated.

After a legislative panel decided not to support the bill, supporters stripped it of most if its language. They replaced it with a bill that would put a referendum question on the state ballot asking voters whether they favor allowing adults 21 years of age and older to engage in the personal use of marijuana and regulating commercial marijuana-related activities.

If voters agreed, the referendum would have required the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations to develop a plan to regulate and tax marijuana.

During the floor debate Friday, some lawmakers said a citizens’ referendum was inevitable, so it would be better for the Legislature to develop the rules rather than letting the proponents of marijuana legalization do it.

Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, a retired state trooper and a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, voted against the bill in committee but for it on Friday.

Although he still opposes legalization of marijuana, he said, he supported the bill because the scaled-down version would only put the issue to voters.

“Let’s let the people decide,” he said.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, who supported the bill, said the United States has lost the “war on drugs” because efforts to suppress the illegal drug trade drive up profits, thus increasing incentives to sell drugs.

Although he opposes its use, he said, it would be more effective to regulate marijuana as a legal drug.

“The flood gates are open on this,” he said. “That’s not a good thing. It’s over. How do we surrender in a way in which our dignity isn’t gone and our loss is not greater?”

Opponents said marijuana poses health risks, serves as a gateway to harder drugs and stunts the cognitive development of teenagers.

“I have seen lives destroyed by addiction,” said Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner. “I raise my kids to say ‘no’ to drugs. I am saying, ‘no’ to drugs. I am saying ‘no’ to this drug. I am not raising the white flag.”

Rep. Joseph Brooks, I-Winterport, spoke at length about his life as a recovering alcoholic. He said alcohol and drug addictions cause great suffering.

“I am not going to go home and say, ‘I voted to legalize marijuana,’ not after all these years to keep my family off drugs,” he said. “Why can’t we be high on life? Why can’t we accept life, deal with the issues and problems, without some artificial means of being high?”

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