HALLOWELL — The City Council on Monday became the latest group of elected officials from central Maine to approve a moratorium temporarily banning recreational marijuana establishments, retail stores and social clubs within city limits, a pre-emptive step after a citizen referendum that Maine voters approved during the Nov. 8 election.
The city’s Marijuana Task Force voted unanimously last month to recommend the moratorium, and the council voted 6-1 in favor of the 180-day ban, which became effective immediately after the vote.
“The moratorium was needed because the city has no ordinances in place to regulate recreational marijuana and because the council needs time to study its impact and enact ordinances that balance the rights of everyone,” City Manager Nate Rudy said.
He said he doesn’t think a 180-day moratorium will be sufficient and told the council to expect him to ask for at least one renewal, because Rudy thinks everyone will need more time.
“I fully expect that the state will still be rule making or lawmaking and still be discussing this matter into the fall and winter months,” Rudy said. “I don’t think the council should expect to only vote on the (moratorium) this one time.”
Ward 1 Councilor Maureen Aucoin-Giroux was the lone councilor to oppose the moratorium. Aucoin-Giroux, whose wife, Shelly, works for Wellness Connection of Maine, a state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary, said she thought the council was voting based on fear and not because of any knowledge they have.
“I don’t know what any unintended consequences or gray areas are, and I have no idea why we’d need an emergency moratorium in place before our next meeting,” Aucoin-Giroux said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The new state law will allow the creation of retail marijuana stores and social clubs where the substance could be bought and used on site, among other provisions. Lawmakers are working on creating recreational marijuana rules, and Rudy said the moratorium would allow Hallowell officials to have their own parallel conversation.
The city already has one Water Street business selling marijuana. The Cannabis Healing Center opened in January to serve those who are permitted to buy and use medical marijuana.
At Monday’s meeting, the council suspended its rules to allow for the first and second reading of the moratorium. The final step was to declare an emergency because “the city has no ordinances in place that regulate” commercial recreational marijuana establishments.
But Aucoin-Giroux, who spent more than six years as Hallowell’s code enforcement officer, said she didn’t understand the need for three readings of the moratorium during one meeting, in part because she thinks existing Hallowell zoning ordinances would cover many issues that might arise.
At-large Councilor George LaPointe disagreed with Aucoin-Giroux and said that the council was reacting out of uncertainty, not fear, which he said was “fundamentally different.” At-large councilor Lynn Irish, the chairwoman of the task force, noted that the Maine Municipal Association and Hallowell’s city solicitor recommended a moratorium.
Numerous times throughout the discussion, councilors, Rudy and Mayor Mark Walker said they were in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana. Walker said the task force should continue to meet to talk about zoning and other issues.
Municipalities in central Maine have been debating the merits of moratoriums since the referendum was approved in November. Augusta’s council approved a six-month moratorium in December, and Litchfield adopted a six-month ban in January. The marijuana law voters approved in November included a nine-month delay to allow state lawmakers time to create rules for selling the drug, and Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a three-month extension in late January.
In other business, Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent William Zima provided an update to the council on the district. He said the district is entering budget season, which he jokingly called his “favorite time of year.”
Zima said he’s pleased with schools’ progress but said there’s always room for improvement. The district is looking at other measures of students’ success besides state test scores, and he said the Gallup organization has found a way to measure “hope.”
“A renewed sense of hope is a better predictor of success than grade-point average and test scores,” Zima told the council. He also invited councilors and the public to go to RSU 2 schools to see the hard work being done by the staff, teachers and students. Zima hopes to present a more detailed budget picture to the council in the coming months.
The council is scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m. May 8 at City Hall.
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663