FAIRFIELD — Neighborhood complaints about a resident growing medical marijuana at his house have the town seeking a way to solve the problem, but restricting the caregiver isn’t an option.
Some residents of High Street are complaining that a caregiver who moved into their neighborhood in the past year has brought increased traffic, noise and disruption. They say they don’t feel comfortable living near where marijuana is being cultivated.
But Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said Friday that caregivers aren’t businesses, so it makes it difficult to enact an ordinance that would restrict where they are sited or force them to register with the town.
“They are caregivers. You can’t subject them to the same rules as a home business,” Flewelling said. “At this point in time, we are not aware of anything that can be done at a local level.”
Fairfield is one of several areas communities grappling with issues involving medical marijuana businesses and operations.
Waterville enacted a 180-day moratorium last month until an ordinance can be enacted, and a subsequent confusing Planning Board meeting on possible restrictions prompted residents to criticize town officials, saying the proposed rules would be too restrictive for something that is legal.
The town of Starks, on Saturday at Town Meeting, is considering a similar moratorium.
Although the drug is still illegal under federal law, Maine allows people to use it for qualified medical purposes and to become licensed caregivers so they can grown and provide marijuana to other legal patients. According to state rules, caregivers can assist no more than five qualifying patients — six if they are one of the patients — at a time and can cultivate a maximum of six mature plants for each patient.
The law doesn’t regulate where medical marijuana patients and caregivers can cultivate, serve and use the medicine, as long as it is not in public. There are stricter rules for dispensaries, retail locations where qualified patients can buy medical marijuana products.
Caregivers also must be licensed with the state and are subject to rules that, for instance, require them to destroy plants if a patient leaves or replace that patient within 10 days, hire only one person to assist them who must also register with the state, and make sure all the patients are registered, too.
But neighbors don’t understand how what they see as a business was able to sprout up in their backyard without any notification, and they even have asked Town Council members to consider lowering their taxes in recognition of what they consider a loss of property value.
From the perspective of the caregiver who lives in the house, one of his patients and his landlord, neighbors have no basis for their complaints. And town officials say they can’t restrict where people grow medical marijuana without a change in the state rules that govern the program.
A group of residents aired their concerns about growing marijuana on High Street to the Town Council on Wednesday.
Sally Peters, who lives next door to the house, said she doesn’t care if people grow or use pot, but she doesn’t know how it was possible that a grow house could be set up next door. When she owned a hair salon in her home, she had to inform her neighbors and conform to town rules, she said.
“I don’t care if they sell pot. I care if they sell it next to me,” Peters said. She reported disorderly parking along the street and constant foot traffic in and out of the house.
Judy Gregory, another High Street resident, made similar complaints in an March 5 email to town councilors.
“While I’m not strongly against legal medical marijuana, I would prefer that it be in a commercial or business section of town, not in my residential area, across the street from my home with an elementary school and day care just down the road,” Gregory said.
Marjorie Garcia, who owns the building, said she doesn’t have a problem with her tenants growing medical marijuana.
Her previous tenants used illegal drugs and never paid rent, she said. Her current tenant, Zachary Ricker, is quiet and respectful, pays his rent on time and provides an important service for sick people who need marijuana, she added.
“They are not bothering anyone,” Garcia said. “What he does in my house is between him and I.”
Daniel Hill, one of the patients Ricker grows for, told councilors that he thought Peters and other neighbors were just upset that a young person had moved into the area and spent time at the house with his friends.
“There is nothing illegal going on there. I need my medicine or I have seizures,” Hill said. There was no reason why neighbors were attacking his caregiver, he added.
“These allegations are just absurd, to me. This is just ridiculous,” he added.
Ricker, who also attended the meeting, said he has asked visitors to park more neatly when they visit the house and said he would try to make sure people didn’t squeal their tires, another complaint from residents.
When asked by Councilor Aaron Rowden if he would be willing to register with the town like other businesses, Ricker responded that the two were different.
“What I’m doing is not a business. I’m serving patients,” he said.
At the February meeting of the Waterville Planning Board, at which an initial proposed ordinance spurred heated debate, Charles Ferris, an attorney representing clients interested in bringing a medical marijuana business to the city, said the proposal as written would violate state law because it does not exempt caregivers. Many caregivers, Ferris said, are already in the geographic area that the ordinance would banish them from.
“I think what you’re going to end up with is a conflict between state and local law,” he said.
Fairfield’s Planning Board contemplated changes to the town’s land use ordinance to restrict where caregivers could cultivate, but it decided to send the issue to the Town Council so it could get legal advice on the issue before proposing restrictions, said Kevin Violette, the Planning Board chairman.
The board has toyed for years with how to regulate medical marijuana locally, and there have been lots of complaints from residents about cultivation operations in their neighborhoods; but because of a lack of government oversight, the board hasn’t been able to take up the issue, Violette said.
“There are commercial grows in many areas and it is unregulated,” he added.
Peter McGuire — 861-9239