CHINA — A medical marijuana business on Route 3 has been found to be in compliance with local and state laws after town officials erroneously accused the owner of illegally selling recreational cannabis.

This comes as Maine prepares to launch recreational marijuana sales next year — Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday signed a bill outlining those rules — but the China matter also highlights the ongoing confusion about pot laws nearly three years after voters approved legalization at the ballot box. The incident also revealed problems with the vague and outdated language in the town’s ordinance governing marijuana.

The town’s decision was formalized in a May 16 letter from Town Manager Dennis Heath to store owner Nathan White. Heath, White, Code Enforcement Officer Paul Mitnik, police Sgt. Tracey Frost and medical marijuana expert Dawson Julia met to discuss the issue at the end of April, after a Morning Sentinel report that revealed officials’ concerns about the business, which is at 306 Route 3 in China. Frost is a full-time officer for the Oakland Police Department who also works part time as a police officer for China.

“Julia shared that the Maine legislature and responsible agencies continually work to refine the statutes and regulations, which can contribute to the misunderstandings in municipalities across the State,” Heath wrote in the letter, which concluded with a statement that “no further action is expected.”

China Town Manager Dennis Heath sits at his desk in August 2018 at the China Town Office. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

Julia owns a medical marijuana business in Unity — one of the first to open in the state — and has helped draft some of Maine’s medical marijuana bills through his work on the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine’s legislative committee.

White said that though he is grateful that things have been resolved, the situation made him feel like the town was “out on a witch hunt for me.”

While Heath maintained that the conflict was over terminology in the town’s marijuana ordinance and signage outside the shop, White said he thinks officials “from the old school” don’t want medical marijuana outfits operating within the town’s limits.

The town’s ordinance bans retail marijuana establishments and social clubs, except for those authorized under the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act. White is state-licensed as a medical marijuana caregiver.

Frost said he had not received any resident complaints about the Route 3 business, but that Heath had asked him to look into whether White was violating the local ordinance. Selectman Ron Breton also was involved in the decision, which he said sprang from a resident’s concern.

China Selectman Ron Breton

Breton and Heath maintained that they are not opposed to medical marijuana shops operating in town. When China’s Planning Board issued White a license in 2016 to cultivate and sell cannabis, Breton, then the board’s chairman, was among those who voted in favor of it.

I don’t have any issues with what’s going on (at White’s business),” Breton said. “I never did, never have and never will.”

The Planning Board will review a request to open a second medical marijuana facility in China during its July 9 meeting, according to the town’s code enforcement officer. The facility, owned by Grinjan LLC, would be located at 360 Route 3, which is less than a quarter-mile away from White’s existing operation.

 

IN THE WEEDS

Signage outside White’s shop initiated the kerfuffle about two months ago. At an April 16 Select Board meeting, Frost and Heath suggested that White was selling retail marijuana because rates were posted on the street-side windows of his facility.

“The ordinance that the town has very specifically uses the term ‘retail,'” Heath said Tuesday. “(But the issue) is actually recreational versus medical, so that’s really where it wasn’t clear. A medical marijuana outlet may sell retail. I think it was just a clarification of terminology.”

In April, China police informed business owner Nathan White that he was violating a town ordinance that bans retail marijuana operations and was blatantly flouting it by posting these rates. The town has since acknowledged that White did not violate any laws. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael Seamans

China’s ordinance points to a currently repealed state law for the definition of “retail.” The preamble of that bill references “a system for the regulation and administration of the cultivation, distribution and retail sale of recreational marijuana,” not medical marijuana. It was drafted to delay the implementation of the 2016 voter-approved Marijuana Legalization Act.

While Frost said at the April Select Board meeting that White “appeared to be selling retail,” he did not specify whether he meant recreational or medical. He followed up by saying that, “certainly looking at the ordinance, it’s something for the town to take a look at.”

Heath interpreted Frost’s comments as referring to recreational sales.

“That’s the violation,” Heath told the Morning Sentinel at the time. “They have apparently admitted to our police officer that they are selling recreational marijuana, not purely for medical use.”

Frost said this week that Heath inaccurately represented his findings.

“I didn’t (make the determination that White was selling recreational marijuana), and I never said the word ‘recreational,'” he said. “The mere request was to see if he was selling retail, which he is, which is fine under the Medical Marijuana Act.”

This game of telephone frustrated White, who said the accusations of making recreational sales were only part of what left a bad taste in his mouth. Though Frost mentioned having “made contact” with White before delivering his report to the elected officials in April, White said that Frost never spoke with him.

Nathan White stands outside his medical marijuana shop Tuesday in China. Town officials have apologized to White for suggesting he was selling recreational marijuana instead of medical products. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

“When I asked him why he told the Select Board that he stopped down and talked to me and that I admitted that I was selling recreational marijuana, he said, ‘I dropped a copy of the ordinance off in the mailbox,'” White explained. “Well, the mailbox out in front of my parking lot belongs to whoever lives in the apartment behind my store, not me. So he dropped a letter off in that mailbox and told the Select Board that he met with me.”

At the time, the tenant of that apartment was an employee of White’s. That person no longer lives at the residence, White said.

“I never heard a word about (the ordinance being delivered),” White said.

Frost did not respond directly to a question about whether he had spoken to White in person.

“Everything with that situation I’m referring to the code enforcement officer,” Frost said. “It’s not a China Police Department issue. I have no interest in shutting down his business.”

 

INCIDENT AFTERMATH

White said he was not pleased with the way the town followed up, either. After he requested that the outcome of the April 23 meeting be formalized in a letter, White said it took three weeks and a reminder to Heath to actually receive the piece of paper.

“I never got a personal apology from anyone,” he said, though White said he isn’t looking for one at this point. “I just want this whole issue to be over with. I was wronged.”

Mitnik, the code enforcement officer, said he was “not really sure” if the language in China’s ordinance will be updated as a result of this situation. He is retiring Friday for unrelated reasons.

“There’s not a plan to do that, but we probably should to make it more clear what it is,” Mitnik noted.

Despite the near-run-in with the law, White said that the attention has not exactly hurt his business.

“It’s too hard to tell (whether the situation harmed sales) because my business wasn’t all that great to start with,” he said. “I think the article (in the Morning Sentinel) might have helped me, if anything.”

In the aftermath, White has purchased clearly marked medical marijuana feather flags to advertise his merchandise. There are no more products or rates posted on the windows.

“It obviously was just something that somebody could talk about,” he said.

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