Dozens of towns around the state have spent the past year scrambling to ban recreational marijuana operations within their borders since voters approved legalization last November.

But a last-minute change to a proposed legislative rewrite of the Marijuana Legalization Act would make those moratoriums and bans superfluous, said attorney Amy Tchao of Drummond Woodsum to an audience of more than 100 municipal leaders at the Maine Municipal Association’s convention Thursday in Augusta. The change would require cities and towns to approve adult-use cannabis operations, not forbid them, she said.

“Municipalities would need to opt in, not out, to authorize marijuana establishments in their town,” Tchao said. “What that means is, if you do nothing, you have effectively forbidden all. This is an incredibly important change for municipalities … If this goes into effect, you don’t need a prohibition ordinance, or a moratorium. Fine if you have it, but you don’t need it.”

Many in the crowd were obviously relieved to hear the news, nodding their heads in approval. Officials from many of the smaller towns said they are still struggling to manage local medical marijuana caregiver operations governed by rules that have been around since 2009.

“It’s a lot to digest, especially for small towns,” said Selectman Tiffany Brendt of Parsonsfield, a 1,900-person town 40 miles west of Portland.

Some municipalities had sought temporary moratoriums that would give the Maine Legislature time to tweak the law adopted by voters last fall, while others simply wanted time to write their own ordinances, or to consult with municipalities in other legalized states for suggestions. A few had hired lawyers to craft permanent bans on any kind of adult-use marijuana business.

Tchao said the opt-in amendment to the proposed adult-use marijuana bill, which will be the subject of an Oct. 23 special session vote of the full Legislature, would also help marijuana businesses. “Industry doesn’t want to go into towns where they don’t know if they’re wanted,” Tchao said. “They want clarity.” The opt-in amendment would give them some assurance of being welcomed, she said.

Under the law that voters approved last fall, towns had the authority to prohibit adult-use marijuana businesses. But the Legislature enacted a moratorium on most of the law – essentially everything but the section that allows adults to grow six mature pot plants and possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal use – while the marijuana committee overhauled the voter initiative.

The committee spent almost nine months sifting through the law, seeing how it intersected with Maine’s medical marijuana program and how the language compared with other states with established adult-use markets, like Colorado, Oregon and Washington state. It wrote a testing bill that was enacted into law and last month approved an omnibus marijuana bill that is now being drafted into its final form.

On its last two days of work, the committee made a series of sweeping changes to its proposal, ranging from eliminating drive-up window sales from retail stores to establishing a two-year residency requirement for the state’s first license applicants. The committee never deviated from its plan to allow towns the final say on whether to allow adult-use marijuana businesses within their borders.

But on the last day, the committee voted down a proposal to require towns to opt out of the adult-use cannabis market, said attorney Ted Kelleher, also of Drummond Woodsum and a frequent participant in the marijuana committee’s work on the new law. At the end of the day, a state analyst asked committee leaders what the final draft of the bill should say about local authority, Kelleher said.

State Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, one of the committee’s co-chairmen, told analysts to write the bill with opt-in language, Kelleher said. The final draft of the committee bill will not be available until Oct. 11, when the committee reviews it one last time, so it’s too early to say how that particular clause that would be so important to towns will read, he said, or if it will survive a floor vote on Oct. 23.

Even if the Legislature passes the bill, Gov. Paul LePage has told some lawmakers that he may yet veto it, Kelleher said. And should the Legislature muster the two-thirds majority needed to override, LePage has warned some lawmakers privately that he may order state agency heads to delay the rulemaking necessary to issue licenses, which are required for cultivation, manufacturing or sales.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at:

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