AUGUSTA — Concerned about the potential effect of what they describe as the “Wild West” status of state regulations on medical marijuana caregivers, members of an ad hoc committee have recommend the city temporarily ban caregivers from opening medical marijuana storefronts.

Committee members also suggest that Augusta establish zoning rules to regulate in-home medical marijuana growing and sales by caregivers.

City councilors said they’re concerned that caregivers, because of a gray area of state law, are able to sell medical marijuana to many more than the five patients allowed under the law, potentially even hundreds of patients. Councilors are also concerned about the effect of in-home marijuana growing and selling by caregivers on their neighbors.

Some caregivers, though, say the city’s proposed new rules are discriminatory because they would treat caregivers with storefronts or who sell to patients in their homes differently from other businesses, and that could make it harder for patients to get their medicine.

The state has eight highly regulated medical marijuana dispensaries and about 5,000 caregivers, who, local officials said, face much less legal scrutiny than the dispensaries do.

The proposed local zoning rules would require caregivers to get a permit from the city because, under current state law, there is no way for local officials to know who caregivers are, or where they are located, according to Matt Nazar, city development director. And that makes it hard to regulate those operations, which he said could harm residential neighborhoods if left unchecked.

A committee of mostly city councilors recommended Thursday that Augusta adopt land use standards to regulate medical marijuana caregivers who grow and sell marijuana in their homes.

In addition to requiring a permit from the city, the recommended new zoning rules also would limit caregivers based in their homes to two patient visits per day, require all visits from patients to be by appointment, limit growing to inside buildings, require an odor control system to prevent the odor of marijuana from being detectable outside the building, and require the portion of the home where medical marijuana is grown and stored to be secure and locked at all times.

Catherine Lewis, president of the board of directors of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a trade association for caregivers and patients, is also an owner of Homegrown Healthcare of Maine, a caregiver storefront in Winthrop. Lewis said state law requires caregivers who sell to patients in their homes, or from storefronts, to be treated the same as other business owners.

She said the city’s proposed rules for limiting the number of patient visits per day are unenforceable and don’t make sense because state law allows caregivers to have up to five patients at a time. She said the proposed requirement to grow only in a building also conflicts with state law, which she said allows growing to take place in secure greenhouses and outdoors in a yard with a 6-foot-high privacy fence. She said the potential new zoning rules would make it harder for patients to find caregivers and harder for caregivers to have successful small businesses.

Lewis said the municipalities should be able to have some control over businesses, but caregivers selling to medical marijuana patients should be treated just like any other business.

“The goal is to make sure patients have safe access and not push people to the black market,” Lewis said Friday. “If you prohibit caregivers, that’s exactly what you’ll do, for some of our most vulnerable populations. We don’t want to go backwards, and I’m afraid this entire zoning piece would absolutely do that.”

Prime among councilors’ concerns is some caregivers’ practice of “cycling” patients. State law allows caregivers to grow for up to five patients. However, according to committee leader Marci Alexander, an at-large city councilor, over time some caregivers have taken to discharging their five patients immediately after selling them medical marijuana, then getting five new patients to take their place. In that way, officials said, a caregiver could have, instead of just five patients, potentially hundreds.

That, officials said, could bring too much unwanted traffic into residential neighborhoods.

Alexander said residents complained to the city that “… the house next door, which once had five patients, is now cycling through patients and they have patient upon patient upon patient coming into your residential neighborhood. We still want to protect the right to be a caregiver to patients. We don’t want to discourage that. Those patients need their medical marijuana. But we want to try to discourage (cycling and selling to large number of patients) in a residential area.”

Lewis said the practice of cycling in new patients after former patients leave is legal and there is nothing wrong with it.

Mayor David Rollins said caregivers cycling through patients “are selling to everybody.”

Nazar said if the city adopted rules regulating medical marijuana caregivers operating home occupation businesses, it probably would enforce those rules when the city receives a complaint, typically from a neighbor, about such an operation.

Under state law, municipalities cannot ban medical marijuana caregivers, according to Kristin Collins, an attorney for the city.

The committee also recommends a moratorium to ban temporarily any caregiver from opening a storefront medical marijuana business in Augusta, to give the city time to come up with coordinated regulations for both recreational, or adult use, marijuana stores and caregiver stores.

The city already has a moratorium on recreational marijuana retail sales in place, which Collins said the city should renew for another six months.

Augusta resident Catherine Cobb, a member of the city’s marijuana committee, the former head of the state’s medical marijuana program, and a board member of Wellness Connection, which has four dispensaries, including one in Gardiner and a medical marijuana cultivation operating in Auburn, said state officials changed the terminology and now refer to what previously was called “recreational marijuana” instead as “adult use marijuana.” She said the change is meant to avoid making use of the substance attractive to children, who still are banned from using marijuana.

Voters statewide legalized adults’ use of marijuana in November 2016. However, the state has yet to come up with rules to regulate retail sales of marijuana. Local officials don’t think the state will do so until after Gov. Paul LePage, an opponent of legalization, leaves office.

Cobb said she was told the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services has sought consultants to help come up with adult-use marijuana rules, which she said might be an indication the state at least is working on the issue.

The state currently is considering revising medical marijuana caregiver rules, though a bill proposing changes was held in the state Senate, and the session has since ended. The Legislature might take it up next session.

“It was difficult to come up with a set action plan because, literally, everything was still up in the air,” Alexander said of the committee’s work.

Nazar said the city committee will continue to meet to work on potential changes to city zoning regarding caregivers. However, he said after that the committee might need to take a break to wait for the state to come up with adult-use marijuana rules before the committee could craft local regulations for retail marijuana stores.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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