GARDINER — Across Maine, the knowledge that the sale of recreational marijuana will eventually be legal has many towns and cities bracing for the change.

It’s a daunting task for the local officials who are considering the potential effects of legalization, from the odors that could waft off of growing facilities, to the burden those facilities could place on water and electric systems, to the impaired drivers that could hit the road.

Community leaders from across the state raised those and other questions in Gardiner Friday morning, during a forum about recreational marijuana’s impact on Maine municipalities that included presentations from an attorney, a city planner, a property developer and members of the marijuana industry.

After the new recreational marijuana law was narrowly approved by voters in November, state lawmakers are now drafting the rules that must be in place before the drug can legally be sold.

It won’t be until at least early 2018 that the new industry finally gets a green light, said Ted Kelleher, who heads the regulated substances practice at the law firm Drummond Woodsum.

At the Friday forum, which was organized by the Maine Development Foundation and attended by about 40 people from across the state, Kelleher outlined a number of challenges the industry is presenting to state and local officials.

One of Kelleher’s major concerns is the fact that Mainers can now own and give away small quantities of recreational marijuana under the new law, but the sale of the drug still won’t be allowed until a statewide moratorium is lifted next year. That could lead to the drug continuing to be sold on the black market, which the new law was meant to prevent.

To avoid that, Kelleher endorsed bills that have been proposed in the Legislature that would allow the state’s established medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana while lawmakers work out the rules for the new law. He also said that lawmakers will need to create a tax structure that adequately funds the regulation of the new industry, but doesn’t raise costs so much that customers return to the black market.

“The entire point of this is to drive activity into a legal, regulated market that can guarantee product safety, accountability, tax revenue and that the prices of marijuana aren’t too high,” Kelleher said. “That’s getting a lot of attention in Augusta right now.”

But Kelleher also emphasized the wide latitude Maine towns and cities will have to regulate the industry, including the ability to ban the sale of recreational marijuana entirely, create a local licensing program and draft zoning rules that govern where marijuana can be sold. That’s a contrast with the state’s medical marijuana market, which towns have less control over, according to Kelleher.

“One of the untold stories of (recreational) marijuana legalization is the extent to which local control has been a hallmark across the country,” he said.

Many towns and cities across Maine have passed moratoriums and formed committees to consider how they’d like to regulate recreational marijuana. Lynn Irish, a Hallowell councilwoman who is on that city’s marijuana committee, attended the forum on Friday.

Afterward, she said that there seems to be considerable support for allowing recreational marijuana sales in Hallowell. In the November election, the law passed there with a 873-755 vote. To that end, Irish said, the committee is trying to set up rules that don’t stigmatize marijuana users, but also protect the city.

One of Irish’s concerns has been the possibility of a large marijuana growing operation opening in a rural part of the city, but on Friday, she said she was encouraged to hear from one industry representative that it’s hard to open those operations in spaces that haven’t already been equipped for industrial use.

“We’re just trying to figure out how marijuana cultivation will fit in various parts of the city, whether it needs rezoning,” Irish said. “It was interesting to hear that they’re doing cultivation in industrial parks.”

Jeff Levine, the planning and urban development director in Portland, has been considering those needs on a much larger scale. Addressing the group in Gardiner on Friday, he compared the challenge of legalizing recreational marijuana to that of ending alcohol prohibition.

“This is a product that’s been around thousands of years,” he said. “It’s not even really a black market anymore. How do you suddenly tell people, ‘Hey there’s another way to do this than through your informal networks, and how do you make it more attractive than through your informal networks?'”

A number of planning decisions now face Portland, including whether it should cap how many licenses can be issued for recreational marijuana sales, and what fees it should charge for licenses. As its made those decisions, the city has considered its experience regulating medical marijuana, breweries, distilleries and food trucks, Levine said.

Patrick Wright, the economic and community development director in Gardiner, asked Levine if Portland will try to use marijuana sales to recoup some of the tax revenue that once came through the state’s revenue sharing.

But Levine said the city will not try to raise more revenue than is needed to regulate the recreational marijuana program.

“We really want to make sure the fees are related to setting up and supporting systems, but we do not want them to be a profit center for the city,” he said. “It would be very complicated politically if we were using it as a profit center.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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