AUGUSTA — City councilors narrowly approved a six-month moratorium on recreational marijuana retail sales Thursday in response to uncertainty about how state government will regulate sales of the substance made legal for adult use by a 2016 referendum vote.

Councilors voted 5-3 in favor of the moratorium. Proponents said they aren’t necessarily opposed to allowing the legal sale of marijuana in the city; they just want to make sure the city has rules in place to do so safely first.

“The longer period of time is really to enable us to do the work that needs to be done for zoning,” said At-large Councilor Marci Alexander. “I’ve had constituents reach out to me, saying they want this planning process to take place and they have great concerns about a retail establishment or warehouse next to their homes.”

The moratorium will ban all commercial recreational marijuana activity in Augusta for 180 days, retroactive to Dec. 1.

Voting against the moratorium were Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant, Ward 4 Councilor Anna Blodgett and At-large Councilor Corey Wilson.

“I will not be supporting the moratorium, as discussed a meeting ago with Sen. (Roger) Katz. It really will not serve any purpose,” Blodgett said. “I’m not a user (of marijuana), but we’re looking at this like it’s poison. It seems we’re frantic about it. But we love it when a brewery opens. And alcohol, to me, is about on the same level.”

Wilson said the city should honor the wishes of voters who voted to legalize marijuana.

Grant said he wanted a city ad hoc committee that is forming to work on the issue to see if warehousing rules for marijuana could be established in January, before a state moratorium on recreational marijuana commercial activity expires, so warehousing could be excluded from the moratorium. He said he’s worried the city could lose out on opportunities, to municipalities that don’t have a moratorium, to have a business in need of warehousing marijuana locate in Augusta. He said warehousing marijuana seems less impactful than other commercial marijuana activities, such as retail shops or social clubs.

“I think there are pretty defined areas around the city where a warehouse building would be appropriate or is already in place and wouldn’t be controversial just holding marijuana,” Grant said.

City Manager William Bridgeo recommended the moratorium to protect against any businesses opening up shop to sell marijuana in Augusta after a state moratorium expires Feb. 1, 2018, and before state rules are adopted to implement the referendum that legalized the drug. He said the temporary local ban would give the city time to come up with local rules for commercial recreational marijuana activity.

A legislative committee co-chaired by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, worked for months to come up with comprehensive state rules about the legalization of recreational marijuana.

But the legislation was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Earlier this month Katz told city councilors he expects the Legislature to extend the state moratorium to allow more time to craft rules beyond the referendum itself, which he said doesn’t have enough details; but he added that he could not be sure the state moratorium would be extended. He said he saw no harm in the city doing a local moratorium, to protect itself should someone, if and when the state moratorium expires, try to open a marijuana retail shop in Augusta.

Municipalities cannot prohibit possession or use of marijuana by adults, but they can regulate or prohibit its sale or other commercial activities within their borders.

Some councilors previously expressed apprehension about a local moratorium, saying the state and city already had more than a year to come up with regulations. However, councilors agreed to form a city committee to study the issue and make recommendations for local rules.

Bridgeo, after hearing councilors’ initial response, shortened the proposed moratorium from six months to four months.

However, councilors, on a motion from At-large Councilor Mark O’Brien, voted 5-4, with Mayor David Rollins casting the tie-breaking vote, to extend it back to six months.

O’Brien said 120 days probaby wouldn’t provide enough time to address the issue.

In December 2016 councilors approved a six-month moratorium on any recreational marijuana commercial activity, which was followed by the state adopting the statewide moratorium expiring Feb. 1, 2018.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.