SOUTH PORTLAND — As other Maine communities pass moratoriums and try to decide whether to allow medical marijuana operations to expand under new legislation, including storefronts, South Portland is poised to welcome them in commercial areas with certain limits, much like recreational marijuana businesses.

City officials are pushing ahead with proposed medical marijuana zoning and licensing regulations, unlike municipal leaders in Scarborough, Auburn, Topsham and elsewhere, who have temporarily blocked retail startups so they can address legislative loopholes and other concerns with the state’s burgeoning marijuana industry.

Last November, the City Council unanimously approved zoning and licensing ordinances that placed South Portland among the first few municipalities in the state to pave the way for so-called adult-use marijuana businesses.

The council acted in advance of the Legislature’s vote in May that overturned yet another marijuana veto by Gov. Paul LePage and finally put the state on a path to legalize the sale and production of recreational cannabis, as approved by Maine voters in November 2016.

But while it could be next spring before recreational retail shops and other adult-use marijuana businesses can open under yet-to-be-drafted state licensing regulations, sweeping legislative amendments passed July 9 allow medical marijuana caregivers to expand their businesses and give the state and municipalities more power to regulate them.

Some of the changes took effect immediately; the majority will take effect 90 days from passage.

South Portland officials, directed by the council, have drafted zoning and licensing regulations for medical marijuana operations that largely reflect rules that the council approved last fall for recreational marijuana establishments. The proposed ordinance amendments are spread over 24 pages.

“The whole thing is mirrored on the recreational marijuana regulations,” said Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny. “We’re going to be regulating registered medical marijuana caregivers as businesses.”

The Planning Board is set to hold a public hearing Wednesday on the proposed medical marijuana regulations and vote on a recommendation to the council. The council is scheduled to vote on the regulations at a first reading Aug. 21 and a second reading Sept. 4.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA REFORM

Like the city’s recreational cannabis regulations, the proposed medical marijuana rules would limit growing, testing, processing and retail operations to the city’s commercial and industrial districts. They also would be required to undergo site plan review by the Planning Board.

And like recreational retail shops, medical marijuana storefronts would be prohibited within 1,000 feet of schools or within 300 feet of places of worship, measured from property lines. To prevent clusters of marijuana stores that have occurred in other states, medical marijuana shops would be banned from operating within 300 feet of any other marijuana shop.

The reform legislation passed last month aimed to tackle longstanding problems in the state’s medical marijuana program, which has been changed significantly only twice since it was established in 1999.

Maine has 42,000 certified medical marijuana patients, 3,000 registered caregivers who grow for patients, and eight state-licensed dispensaries that sold $24.5 million in medical marijuana last year. Patients spent about the same amount buying medical marijuana from caregivers, according to Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine.

Without municipal oversight, much of the medical marijuana industry has developed with little local scrutiny. That’s already starting to change since the Legislature took action last month.

Based largely on building code and occupancy permits, Scarborough officials believe there might be 15 to 25 medical marijuana grow facilities operating in warehouses and other buildings within its industrial and agricultural zones, said Assistant Town Manager Larissa Crockett.

Those numbers prompted the Scarborough Town Council to pass a six-month moratorium on July 18 so it would have time to decide whether to develop regulations for medical marijuana establishments allowed under the new laws, especially retail shops.

Old Orchard Beach, Auburn, Lewiston, Topsham, Richmond and Augusta are among the communities that have taken or are poised to take similar steps.

LOOPHOLE PROMPTS ACTION

Scarborough officials acted to address a potential loophole in L.D. 238 that was identified by the town’s attorney and the Maine Municipal Association. That bill, which took effect immediately, allows medical marijuana caregivers to operate retail stores separate from their grow facilities as long as they have a permit under local ordinances, Crockett said.

Scarborough’s retail districts don’t exclude medical marijuana businesses, so a caregiver could have gotten a permit to open a store in town, Crockett said. Medical marijuana retail shops have popped up across the state in communities where they weren’t expressly prohibited.

That right to open a medical marijuana shop under L.D. 238 will be extinguished when L.D. 1529 – the other medical marijuana bill passed last month – goes into effect 90 days after adoption, Crockett said. The latter bill contains an opt-in clause that would prevent medical marijuana shops from operating in communities that haven’t adopted the legislation.

In the meantime, the town plans to survey residents in the coming weeks to see whether they want to allow or prevent established medical marijuana operations to expand. Town voters rejected recreational marijuana by a narrow margin in 2016 – 6,673 to 6,061 – so town councilors are looking for guidance on how to proceed, Crockett said.

South Portland voters, in contrast, have been clear about their support for recreational marijuana use by adults. They decided in 2014 that it was legal for adults in the city to possess small amounts of marijuana. Two years later, they voted 8,565 to 6,226 to legalize adult-use marijuana production and sales statewide.

City officials don’t know how many state-registered medical marijuana caregivers are in South Portland, or how many of them might have grow operations outside their homes, Reny said.

Several people have shown interest in opening marijuana businesses in the city, he said, and there’s a good chance that some medical marijuana caregivers will transition to adult-use operations when state licenses become available.

“It will be interesting to see how the market shakes out, based on consumer demand, between medical and adult-use businesses,” Reny said. “Right now there are people waiting in the wings.”

 

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