Boxes of petition signatures for a Maine marijuana legalization initiative are delivered to state officials on Feb. 1, 2016 as protesters wave signs in Augusta, Maine. (Tom Bell, The Associated Press)

Reversal of fortune: Maine pot proposal could make November ballot

PORTLAND, Maine — A judge on Friday delivered a victory to supporters of a referendum aimed at legalizing marijuana in Maine by overturning the rejection of thousands of signatures by state election officials.

The same judge who upheld Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s decision to reject a casino referendum proposal because of invalid signatures on Thursday revived the bid to put the proposal to legalize marijuana on the November ballot.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol disputed Dunlap’s rejection of 26,779 signatures because the signature of the notary didn’t match the signature on file.

On Friday, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy reversed the decision, ruling it was “unreasonable” for the state to require the notary’s signature to be identical to the one on file.

David Boyer from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol said the secretary of state now must review the disputed petitions, but he viewed that as a formality. He said at least 17,000 of the disputed signatures were otherwise valid, adding up to enough to exceed the threshold of 61,123 signatures for the ballot.

“We’re operating as if we’re going to be on the ballot,” he said.

But Dunlap said it’s too early to say that the measure will be on the ballot. The implications of the judge’s ruling are unclear, and there could be an appeal, he said.

“We have to review the decision and figure out where we go from here,” Dunlap said.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol turned in 99,229 signatures on Feb. 1, but only 51,543 of the signatures were deemed to be valid.

The secretary of state rejected more than 26,000 signatures because the signature of the notary didn’t match the signature on file. More than 17,000 of the signatures were linked to Stavros Mendros, a Lewiston-based political consultant and former state lawmaker, who notarized more than 5,000 petitions.

Murphy said it’s unreasonable to assume that a notary signs the document precisely the same way, saying the requirement was vague and subjective, and creates an undue burden.

“Requiring a notary’s signature to appear identically on every petition signed is unreasonable and abridges the constitutional right to a (referendum),” she wrote.

Scott Gagnon, who opposes the marijuana referendum, said he was disappointed by the judge’s decision, calling it “unsettling.”

“It will open the door to elections fraud in Maine. We will be watching closely how this unfolds as it goes back to the secretary of state,” said Gagnon, state director for Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

The referendum would allow residents 21 or older to legally possess marijuana for recreational use.

If the proposal appears on the ballot, then Maine would be one of several states considering marijuana legalization proposals. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., already have made recreational use of marijuana legal for adults. Maine legalized marijuana for medical use in 1999.

The judge’s decision came after she sided with the secretary of state’s decision to reject a casino referendum proposal.

Dunlap said the casino campaign fell short of submitting the necessary 62,123 voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. In that case, casino supporters delivered 91,294 total signatures, but only 35,518 were deemed valid.