The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, formed after legislators rejected legalization laws in 2015, gathered tens of thousands of signatures to put a voters' initiative on the ballot this November. Polling showed a large majority — 65% — of Maine residents supported allowing recreational marijuana.
But Maine residents may never get the chance to vote for or against the proposal, thanks to state officials who invalidated nearly half of the signatures submitted to support the campaign. The state's Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, disqualified tens of thousands of signatures on the basis they were improperly notarized or verified, as well as over 13,000 signatures his office said did not correspond to registered municipal voters.
Now the campaign is suing the state to reverse the decision.
"We have supporters from every political party and we will bring together a diverse coalition to pass this initiative," campaign manager David Boyer says. "We collected over 100,000 signatures over the last eight months from over 400 Maine towns and used a mixture of volunteers and staff."
NORML founder and legal counsel Keith Stroup, who posted a breakdown of the results on NORML's blog, tells MERRY JANE most organizers "try to gather at least 30% more signatures than the number that is required to qualify for the ballot, to allow for those signatures that may be from individuals who are not registered voters." This time, the campaigners managed to gather over 99,000 signatures, around 60% more than the required total of about 61,000.
He adds that to his knowledge, Dunlap's 48% disqualification rate is much higher than in any other marijuana-related voter initiatives going back to at least California's 1996 medical use law. The difference here, he says, is that the invalidation of 17,000 signatures verified by a single notary "greatly magnified" what would otherwise have been less intensive official scrutiny on the initiative.
The notary in question, Stavros Mendros, has a history indicating he sometimes "plays fast and loose with government regulations," Stroup wrote in the post. That includes an incident in 2007 where Mendros plead guilty to three counts of improper notarization.
One Maine organizer who directly oversaw volunteer efforts, NORML Legal Committee member Lynne Williams, said Legalize Maine ran into problems when another nonprofit called the Marijuana Policy Project assumed control of the project. MPP had initially backed a competing initiative, but agreed to put Legalize Maine's more progressive goals on the petitions in exchange for greater control over the project.
As the Legalize Maine campaign merged into the MPP's, some "volunteers refused to send in their petitions," Williams says. "Others turned them in but refused to continue working on the campaign. I don’t think any of the volunteers I had supervised continued working."
Still, the campaigners expected to make the ballot. While Williams says she does not personally believe Dunlap's office is trying to subvert the project for political reasons, she says it is "odd, however, that all of Stavros petitions were found to be invalid."
"First of all, he was not contacted," says Williams. "He was not asked to swear an oath or to otherwise affirm that those signatures were his. No handwriting expert was consulted. In addition, I personally witnessed him notarizing at least 15 or 20 petitions, with the collector standing right there, one day when I was in the office."
While Stroup writes outside observers can't account for what Maine officials may have been thinking, he thinks "if the initiative concerned a less controversial subject, it would almost certainly have been approved for the ballot."
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"The Maine secretary of state invalidated more than 17,000 otherwise valid signatures, alleging that the notary's signature didn't 'match' the notary's signature on file with that state," Boyers says. "We know that the notary did in fact sign and believe we have a strong case ... The voters signed, the circulators signed, the town clerks signed and the secretary of state should have signed."
"This case is about the right to petition your government and we sincerely hope the state does not disenfranchise over 17,000 registered Maine voters," he added.
Even if the courts reverse the decision in the coming weeks, and voters eventually approve the law, reformers say the hassles will likely continue throughout the law's implementation.
Colorado-based marijuana entrepreneur Anthony Franciosi tells MERRY JANE years after legalization in his state, federal laws against weed mean no financial infrastructure is available to finance entrepreneurs.
"The lack of access to banking creates problems that other businesses do not have to think about," he writes. "On our end, we feel like we are running a highly regulated, highly taxed business that operates under a lot more constraint and oversight than most of the other industries."