2016-11-25 / Front Page

South Portland moves on marijuana moratorium

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — In the wake of a statewide vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana, the South Portland City Council has moved to adopt a moratorium on the licensing of any retail sales. The six-month ban, backdated to be effective as of Nov. 21 if and when it is finally adopted, would also apply to cultivation and testing facilities, as well as social clubs that allow marijuana consumption on site.

The Nov. 21 first reading votes came in two parts, adopting moratoriums on marijuana under South Portland’s zoning laws (Chapter 27 of the city’s code of ordinances) and business regulations (Chapter 14).

The Chapter 27 moratorium is now bound for a Dec. 13 public hearing before the planning board. Both aspects will then return to the council for a public hearing and final vote on Dec. 19.

According to interim City Manager Don Gerrish, state law bans smoking of all types within enclosed structures that are open to the public. However, a room that is open only to members may be able to sidestep that law, allowing people to smoke marijuana openly. Lewiston, for example, has many private clubs with annual dues as low as $5 per year, in which members can smoke tobacco products.

“I think it’s important to note this [moratorium] does not mean we are going to vote against them, only that we need time to decide how to deal with them, to best decide where they should be located,” Gerrish said, prior to the unanimous council vote.

Across the Fore River on Monday, the Portland City Council also voted unanimously to adopt a six-month moratorium on marijuana sales. That decision reportedly passed under the gavel in less than five minutes, with no comment from the public or the council.

In South Portland, however, there was decidedly more debate.

“On this here I’ve got to say I’m absolutely 100 percent disappointed that (referendum question) passed, honest to good Lord I am,” said Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt.

“I hate to see these types of things coming. I’m all for new business, I just wish it wasn’t that,” Lunt said. “I think it will be a problem with kids getting it because they’re going to sell it laced in candy and gummy bears and stuff.”

Question 1 on the Nov. 8 general election ballot was to decriminalize recreational use of marijuana, while giving towns and cities the ability to regulate its sale and cultivation. Much like the 2012 legalization of consumer fireworks, the law would allow municipalities to opt out by banning retail shops within their borders. Otherwise, the law would allow adults 21 and older to possess as much as 2.5 ounces of marijuana, to grow their own plants, and to buy marijuana from licensed retail stores, subject to a 10 percent state sales tax.

However, Question 1 passed by a mere 4,073 votes statewide (381,692 to 377,619), a difference of 0.5 percent. On Monday, Kristen Muszynski, communications director for the Secretary of State’s Office, said signatures have been certified on a recount petition. If the results are upheld, marijuana prohibition would end on Jan. 7, although rules on licensing retail shops and social clubs could take a year to wind though the halls of the state capitol. The law actually gives the state nine months to complete that work.

South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan was not at the Nov. 21 council meeting, but when a possible marijuana moratorium was first addressed at a Nov. 14 workshop, he pointed out that, come what may on the state level, South Portland residents want their weed.

In South Portland, Question 1 passed with 57.6 percent of the vote, 8,504 to 6,253. Additionally, in 2014, South Portland residents adopted a local initiative to legalize marijuana with 52.4 percent in favor – 6,326 to 5,755. That vote was seen as largely ceremonial, a stepping stone of the national Marijuana Policy Project to gauge sentiment in support of statewide legalization, and Police Chief Ed Googins said his officers never stopped issuing citations for possession.

Still, even with marijuana remaining illegal on the federal level, Morgan said the writing is on the wall.

“Citizens of South Portland have voted twice now in less than two years in good proportions to legalize and otherwise let marijuana out of the closet and consume it openly in our city,” he said. “So, I hear that. Do I endorse this? No. But we also have no restrictions other than licenses on the sale of alcohol. To me, it’s really the same thing. What is good for the goose is good for the gander, and this is coming around the bend whether we like it or not. This is the way states are flipping and it’s only a matter of time before the federal laws will change.

“I believe a moratorium in order to treat sellers of marijuana differently than sellers of alcohol, so the voters cannot have their way, is a lot like father knows best, or mommy knows best,” Morgan said.

“I support this initiative,” Councilor Brad Fox said at the Nov. 14 workshop. “I don’t think people should go to jail for smoking marijuana. I know that bothers some people, but I have believed that for about 50 years of my life now. But my personal feelings have nothing to do with it. I believe we need to implement the will of the citizens.

“Still, I support a moratorium, because I believe we need to come up with some kind of a plan as to where we are going to permit these facilities to exist,” Fox said. “We don’t want marijuana to be sold at Red’s (ice cream stand). We probably don’t want marijuana clubs on every corner, either. The end result has to be some reasonable plan. That’s a conversation we need to have.”

Councilor Linda Cohen agreed at the Nov. 21 meeting, saying a moratorium is not necessarily preparatory to a fullon ban. It simply provides time to adjust zoning in reaction to a new type of business not imagined when those rules were written, she said.

“What we’re saying is we realize that establishments are going to want to come into our city and it’s our responsibility to make sure they are not plucking them down next to a school or into the middle of a residential neighborhood.

“Even though this passed twice and the community has had its say, there’s still a big chunk of the community that’s looking to us to regulate where these things can go and what can go on,” Cohen said. “We may allow marijuana to be sold at the Maine Mall, for example, but maybe we don’t think it should be grown there.”

Councilor Eben Rose said the uncharted territory of the “bold and blank” referendum gives South Portland an opportunity to “be really creative” in how it handles an entirely new industry.

However, Cohen countered that, unlike in 2013 when the council adopted a moratorium on distribution of diluted bitumen, or tar sands oil, through South Portland, or earlier this year when it tried to adopt a similar time-out on construction of a propane distribution depot, South Portland will have plenty of examples to choose from in deciding how best to regulate marijuana.

“We’re not starting from scratch on this one,” she said.

Still, Rose, at the Nov. 21 meeting, and Councilor Patti Smith, at the Nov. 14 workshop, encouraged their peers to set aside any prejudices on pot.

“I encourage the council to think of this as a legitimate business that will be coming our way,” Rose said.

Trying to regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana could be a bit of a blind alley, Rose added, noting that there “is still very much a [social] stigma” surrounding the product. Although Cohen claimed city hall is “already aware” of several people interested in taking advantage of legalization for commercial purposes in South Portland, Rose said many may fear coming forward to discuss their plans at public hearings. That he said, may leave the council with a myopic view of the true interests and logistics at play.

“This is the number one issue most communities are facing in this state,” Gerrish said. “But it’s all so new, it’s very much up in the air.”

Mayor Tom Blake said to expect “a number of workshop and hearings” on the topic over the next several months. The end result – whether it’s a particular set of regulations, or a decision to ban marijuana sales outright – will grow out of what the council gets for feedback during that process, he said.

“I don’t this will be a council decision. It will be community driven,” Blake said.

Still, the outgoing mayor said he felt South Portland is diverse enough, in terms of industrial zones and residential neighborhoods, that a compromise can be found that will allow marijuana to enter the light of legal products found on store shelves.

“We’re mixed enough that we can do this,” Blake said.

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