Reuters

The working theory: If big, liberal cities won't liberalize their marijuana laws, statewide initiatives are bound to fail. 

Residents of Portland, Maine, will vote next month on a ballot measure to legalize marijuana possession. If the measure passes—the Marijuana Policy Project's man in Maine, David Boyer, is "cautiously optimistic" that it will—adults 21 and over will theoretically be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of pot under Portland law.

The measure won't empower Portland to tax pot sales. (In Maine, only the state legislature can authorize new taxes.) It also wouldn't permit marijuana use in public, nor in private spaces where cigarette smoking is already banned, such as certain apartment buildings.

Despite its seemingly limited impact, measures like Portland's can still be vital to changing marijuana laws. For starters, they're far cheaper to field than statewide ballot initiatives. "We got to 3,000 signatures through volunteers mostly," Boyer says. To get an initiative on Maine's state ballot, legalization advocates would need closer to 60,000 signatures, and that would cost money. Fighting for policy changes in just one city also means spending less on ad buys.

Cities are also part of the legalization movement's long game. Before Colorado voted as a state to legalize pot, Denver, Breckenridge, and Nederland passed legalization initiatives in 2005, 2009, and 2010, respectively, giving the 2012 push that much more momentum. The flip side of such victories is that if you can't get big, dense, liberal cities to support marijuana legalization, the state's probably not ready. 

In fact, turning cities into building blocks for statewide changes is sometimes the best legalization advocates can hope for. While Seattle's decision in 2003 to make pot the lowest priority for law enforcement "virtually ended adult marijuana possession arrests," says MPP's Mason Tvert, in other cities, the laws have no impact whatsoever. After Denver voted in 2005 to remove all criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use, law enforcement officials responded by simply prosecuting marijuana users under state law.  

Voters in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, faced similar obstinance from their local cash-strapped governments after passing decriminalization measures in Nov. 2012. "Police will continue to enforce state and federal laws relating to possession of marijuana," Flint's city attorney declared days after the election. 

When Portland, Maine, heads to the polls to decide whether to legalize marijuana next month, it won't be the only city to do so. Lansing, Michigan, will also field a legalization question. The fact that Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero supports legalization means the measure's success would have an immediate and meaningful impact on how the city enforces drug laws. 

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