Marijuana’s legal status is one of the fastest-moving issues in American politics. Once there was near consensus that it was a dangerous drug, with only 12 percent favoring its legalization, according to a 1969 Gallup Poll.

When the question was asked last year, 58 percent said the prohibition against recreational marijuana use should be lifted.

Does that mean that the law should change? Not necessarily, but it does indicate that public opinion is shifting rapidly and that voters appear to be out in front of their leaders.

It is time for a debate of this issue, and one of the ways that happens in Maine is through the referendum process. The town of York is missing an opportunity to make its voice heard.

Marijuana legalization activists circulated petitions gathering 100 signatures to put the question before the voters in November. The Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 against putting it on the ballot. The activists collected an additional 767 signatures on a separate petition, and got the same result from the board.

Last week, the issue came before a judge, who ruled with the town, making the observation that marijuana is not regulated by local ordinance and still would be illegal in town if the referendum passed.

Justice Paul Fritzsche was right, but his ruling Friday misses the point.

Though municipal marijuana initiatives can’t change state and federal law, they can record the sentiment of the people who live there. Citizens have a right to petition their government, and putting a question on the ballot is a way to do that.

Public support for current marijuana laws has been crumbling for some time. Maine voters passed a medical marijuana law by referendum in 1999, in defiance of federal law. When the system that lawmakers created to police medical marijuana proved to be cumbersome, another citizen-initiated bill created a distribution system involving commercial growers and brick-and-mortar dispensaries, even though federal law considers selling marijuana to be a crime.

Portland voters last year passed a referendum that permits people older than 21 to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use. This has little legal impact because police continue to enforce state and federal law, but it does put the state’s largest municipality on record.

In November, South Portland and Lewiston will have similar questions on their ballots, and the outcomes of those referendums will set the stage for legislative action next year. Lawmakers will be faced with either designing a law that suits the needs of Maine residents or waiting for another citizen-initiated referendum.

The more information, the better, and a vote from a town like York would be helpful information. Even if it doesn’t change the law in any meaningful way, at least we would know the opinion of York’s 6,400 voters (based on 2010’s turnout). Instead, we know the opinion of just three selectmen and a judge.

York residents deserve a chance to put their views on the record, and the rest of Maine would benefit from hearing what they have to say.

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