This woman said she moved to Portland for its laid-back stance on pot

Clockwise from left, Shannon McCartney, McCartney speaks about her experiences at a news conference, Portlander John Eder celebrates the passage of an ordinance nominally legalizing marijuana possession. (Photos of McCartney courtesy of McCartney, BDN photo of Eder by Troy R. Bennett)

Clockwise from left, Shannon McCartney; McCartney speaks about her experiences at a news conference; Portlander John Eder celebrates the 2013 passage of an ordinance nominally legalizing marijuana possession. (Photos of McCartney courtesy of McCartney, BDN photo of Eder by Troy R. Bennett)

Shannon McCartney can recall the exact date she moved to Portland: Dec. 4, 2013.

It was almost exactly a month after Portland became the first East Coast city to pass an ordinance legalizing recreational marijuana, and six months after she got off probation in her native Maryland for a previous marijuana charge.

“I had been convicted of [possession of] paraphernalia in Maryland, where I was born,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to stay somewhere where I felt I would be incriminated for doing something I don’t feel is any more dangerous than drinking alcohol, which is totally legal. In Portland, there’s no weight on my shoulders. Now that I know it’s legalized, I’m liberated.”

She might be the city’s first marijuana migrant — at least the first to publicly announce she moved to Maine’s largest city precisely because that city passed a legalization ordinance.

McCartney, 26, personifies a migration trend legalization supporters say has infused places like Colorado with new blood and entrepreneurial spirit, but which — beyond McCartney, anyway — hasn’t seemed to have taken off in Portland.

In Colorado and Washington, another state where retail sales of marijuana have been legalized, the New York Times likened the sudden appeal of those states to the gold rush of the mid-1800s or the Texas oil boom of the early 1900s.

“Marijuana is beckoning thousands of entrepreneurs and workers, investors and hucksters from across the country, each looking to cash in on a rapidly changing industry,” the Times reported.

The nation’s legal marijuana industry has been valued at more than $3 billion, a number that has doubled in just two years.

David Boyer took part in the campaign to legalize pot in Portland led by Green Party leader Tom MacMillan and then-City Councilor David Marshall, and is among the highest profile advocates for statewide legalization.

He noted that one survey found that nearly half (48 percent) of Colorado’s summer tourists cited pot legalization as a factor in their decision to visit the state.

Furthermore, he pointed to data showing that about 27,000 people work in that state’s now-legal marijuana industry, and that Denver is among the hottest housing markets in the U.S., although the latter point is hard to definitively tie to pot legalization.

“I know people who have moved to Colorado because of the opportunities of growing marijuana and starting up businesses — they’re entrepreneurs,” said McCartney.

Boyer said legalized marijuana could give Portland an edge over other northeastern cities with proximity to skiing, like in Vermont, or oceanfront beaches, like in Massachusetts.

But so far, there’s been little overt trace of marijuana tourism to Portland or marijuana migration beyond McCartney. Perhaps, in part, because the drug is still outlawed under state law, which legally supersedes any local ordinance.

“As far as the tourism piece, I wouldn’t expect it to have much impact because it is still technically illegal in Portland,” said Scott Gagnon, state director of Smarter Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM. “So shops can’t open up, which of course from the SAM Maine perspective is a good thing.”

Life hasn’t changed much in Portland since the 2013 ordinance was passed. Police here have always considered the drug a low priority. Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said marijuana citations in Portland were nearly halved in 2015 compared to 2014 — down to 23 from 44.

But he said the decline isn’t a reflection of a change in attitude by police. Sauschuck said in both years police have only issued them in cases where the suspects were impaired behind the wheel, underage or smoking in public — which is still restricted under the ordinance — or where the pot was a sidebar to a more serious crime, like burglary.

Those 23 citations came out of around 85,000 calls for service.

The lack of any major changes in Portland in the two-plus years since marijuana has been nominally legal here can be used as an argument both for and against legalization at the state level.

See? Nothing terrible will happen to your community if you legalize pot.

See? There are no major benefits to outweigh the health risks.

The Maine-wide legalization battle is now in the court system, as petitioners seek to appeal the Secretary of State’s invalidation of a chunk of their referendum signatures.

[MORE: Court to decide the fate of Maine marijuana question]

Even McCartney, who came to Portland specifically because of the ordinance, said she’s not totally safe here from the legal consequences of marijuana use.

Her Maryland conviction continues to make it hard to establish a career even here, where the rules are more lax.

“I’m in a perpetual cycle of not being able to pass a background check, or not being able to qualify for federal student loans,” she said. “I have to mark the box for ‘criminal convictions’ whenever I fill out an application. It’s still almost impossible to get a prosperous job, because of the federal standard.”

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.