The Portland City Council voted Monday to give the city the authority to issue temporary marijuana testing lab licenses to help Maine “set the table” for a safe and speedy post-pandemic rollout of the recreational marijuana market.

“Testing is crucial to our regulatory system,” said Erik Gundersen, director of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, during his public testimony on Monday. “This is an opportunity for us to set the table (so we can) quickly and safely implement the market as soon as it is feasible.”

The unanimous Monday vote allows a would-be medical testing lab to apply for the temporary local license it needs to pursue a final state license. To qualify, it would need a provisional state license, a local site plan approval or building permit, and security, waste disposal and odor mitigation controls in place.

The temporary license holder would have to undergo full local licensure once the Portland City Council approves its full suite of marijuana regulations, according to City Manager Jon Jennings. He predicted that he will submit those regulations to the council for consideration next month.

“What we have been trying to do is to hold off a bit just to get the COVID-19 issues behind us,” Jennings told councilors Monday in response to their concerns about marijuana licensing delays. “At least to get us to a point where all the stay-at-home factors are satisfactory.”

Councilor Belinda Ray said other local marijuana entrepreneurs have approached her to ask that similar temporary licensing measures be taken for cultivation and retail operations. Councilor Kim Cook said she would support temporary permitting if the wait for full regulations extends beyond a month.

“Several (local businesses) have qualified for provisional state licenses pending a city license,” Cook said. “If we could move forward on those at the very least I think that would be of benefit, given the amount of money that our small businesses have invested.”

The state has identified two city-based companies, Nova Analytic Labs and ProVerde Laboratories, with a high degree of readiness to conduct state-mandated safety and potency testing of adult-use cannabis, Gundersen said.

Both Portland labs have begun the process of obtaining state certification from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gundersen said. Nova has applied for a state license from Gundersen’s office, while ProVerde, a functioning medical marijuana testing lab, has not yet done so.

Two other labs, Nelson Analytical in Kennebunk and Catlab in Eliot, have applied for a state license. Nelson Analytical was thought of as the frontrunner for scoring Maine’s first lab license until the COVID-19 pandemic forced its host community to call off a referendum on its local licensing.

Maine needs to have a marijuana testing lab ready to go before it can allow licensed retail stores to begin selling recreational cannabis to the public. State law requires all adult-use cannabis to be tested for potency and screened for harmful levels of mold, pesticides and residual solvents.

Earlier this month, the Office of Marijuana Policy announced it would have to delay its self-imposed June deadline for the launch of the adult-use market in part because the pandemic had put local licensure of Maine’s marijuana testing capacity on hold. 

But Portland’s decision doesn’t mean the rollout is back on track, even if the city were to issue temporary licenses right away. The pandemic poses other challenges to a recreational marijuana market launch, such as lines of people waiting to get into the state’s first operational retail stores.

“OMP has no intentions of issuing active licenses or setting a retail sales launch date amid a public health pandemic,” Gundersen wrote in an April 9 letter to the council. “We are simply trying to set the stage to launch this new industry as quickly as possible, once social distancing guidance allows.”

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