By Scott Malone
(Reuters) - An effort to allow Maine residents to vote to legalize recreational marijuana use advanced on Friday when a judge overruled a state official's decision invalidating some of the signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.
The ruling came a month after Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap's office disqualified almost half of the 99,229 voter signatures gathered by marijuana activists, leaving the initiative without enough certified supporters to land a spot on the ballot.
The Secretary of State's office said it had invalidated the petitions over concerns that the signatures of notaries public on various forms submitted did not match up with versions on file in official state records.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, a national group advocating for the referendum, appealed the state's decision last month, saying that officials had disenfranchised tens of thousands of Maine voters based on a "handwriting technicality."
Maine Business and Consumer Court Justice Michaela Murphy on Friday ruled the state used an "incorrect and improper standard" to invalidate the signatures.
The referendum would allow adults 21 and older to legally possess marijuana, while levying a 10 percent tax on recreational sales.
Marijuana use in public would remain illegal.
David Boyer, campaign manager for Maine's legalization initiative, said the decision would allow the group to focus on reaching out to voters, rather than on a court fight.
"We're excited and look forward to educating Mainers," Boyer said. "This is the easy part now."
Dunlap said in a statement that his office was reviewing the decision and considering its options.
Voters in four U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of the drug in similar ballot initiatives. Advocates have pushed for similar referendums this year in a half-dozen other states, including Massachusetts and California.
Nearby Vermont could become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use by legislative act if lawmakers in its House of Representatives approve a bill already passed by the Senate and supported by Governor Peter Shumlin.
Maine Republican Governor Paul LePage has long opposed efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational, calling it a "gateway" to more serious drugs.
The state legalized medical marijuana in 1999.
Voters in Ohio last year voted down a measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana use there.
(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Additional reporting by Dave Sherwood in Portland, Maine; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)