By Scott Malone and Sharon Bernstein
BOSTON/SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Two groups that had backed competing ballot initiatives to make recreational use of marijuana legal in Maine agreed on Monday to join forces on one measure to put before voters in 2016.
The state is one of six where competing pro-marijuana groups hope to hold referendums on marijuana legalization in 2016, following 2012 votes that legalized the drug in Colorado and Oregon. Attitudes about marijuana in the United States have changed markedly since then, as voters in Washington, Alaska and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Voters in Ohio will weigh in on legalization next month.
In Maine, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol said that it would put its organization behind a ballot initiative submitted by Legalize Maine.
Legalize Maine had already collected about 40,000 signatures of voters who support the initiative and would need a total of 61,000 by January to place the measure on a statewide ballot.
"Either one of our measures would have passed but all of us had our doubts about what would happen if there were two measures on the ballot," said Lynne Williams, general counsel for Legalize Maine, whose members played a key role in legalizing medical marijuana in the state. "It's probably always better to work together than to work on parallel tracks."
David Boyer of Maine's Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, added, "Our initiatives were largely similar overall."
A Gallup poll released last week found that 58 percent of U.S. residents believe marijuana should be legal.
Voters in several states could face multiple ballot initiatives next year intended to legalize marijuana, with nine competing for signatures in California and four competing in Massachusetts. Pro-marijuana groups have also filed for 2016 referendums in Michigan, Nevada and Arizona.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that is also supporting a measure the Campaign is pushing in Massachusetts.
There the Campaign faces competition from three initiatives submitted by Bay State Repeal. The Campaign's Massachusetts initiative, which is similar to its Maine proposal, calls for special taxes on marijuana, a provision opposed by Bay State Repeal.
Members of those two groups on Monday indicated they were unlikely to join forces any time soon.
"It would be very nice if they agreed that ours is a better law," said Steven Epstein of Bay State Repeal.
Will Luzier, of the Campaign, said: "Our proposal is divergent from the proposal of the other group ... It's doubtful that we would be able to combine forces here in Massachusetts."
Activists in California, meanwhile, are still working to winnow down the field of nine ballot proposals, aiming to find one that could pass in the most populous U.S. state. It is estimated that it would cost up to $2 million to gather the roughly 366,000 signatures needed to win one spot on the ballot.
Dale Sky Jones, chairwoman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, said the groups are negotiating to resolve differences among their competing proposals.
"Are we jostling for position? Absolutely, yes," she said. "Are we still talking to each other? Absolutely, yes."
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who supports legalization of the drug for adults, said he hopes the groups coalesce around a single approach, because otherwise voters could be faced with a confusing choice in 2016 and simply vote down all of the measures.
"It would be a shame to come this far and fall short," Newsom said.
(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Editing by Eric Walsh)