2018-03-02 / Front Page

Medical marijuana may grow in South Portland

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Having spent nearly a year hammering out zoning rules for retail marijuana sales, set to go into effect once the state adopts the requisite regulatory framework, South Portland now has a new wrinkle to consider – storefronts for medicinal use of the herb.

During the Tuesday, Feb. 27 city council workshop, Councilor Claude Morgan expressed his pride in South Portland, claiming it is the only municipality in the state to “actually do the work” of addressing and adopting zoning regulations for marijuana sales. Although legalized by voters in November 2016, marijuana shops have yet to open as the state continues to struggle with how to best license, regulate and tax retail operations. Most municipalities, Morgan added, have either adopted moratoriums on sales as they wait out state action, or else have passed local bans on the product. But South Portland has its zoning rules and local licensing procedures in place and ready to go, once the state signals its green light to begin processing applications.

However, by Morgan’s own admission, the city council “punted” on the issue of medical marijuana and how it should function within the new paradigm.

Maine has allowed prescription and limited possession of medical marijuana since 1999, although it did not adopt a system for licensing dispensaries of medical grade marijuana to persons with debilitating and chronic medical conditions until 2009. But rather than fold those procedures into the new zoning rules developed for retail sale to adults regardless of a reason for wanting the drug, the council chose to let its medical marijuana rules ride as crafted nearly a decade ago.

Now, having punted, the time has come to play that ball where it landed.

According to City Manager Scott Morelli, three firms have expressed interest in opening storefronts for medical marijuana. Such spaces, if allowed, would inhabit a middle ground between the eight medical marijuana dispensaries now licensed by the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the retail stores that could start to spring up by the middle of 2019, once the state licensing rules are in place.

Thomas Mourmouras of Old Orchard Beach, who runs a tax consulting firm that serves more than 220 individual medical marijuana caregivers in Maine, said Tuesday he has “a tentative lease agreement” in place for a retail marijuana shop in South Portland. Letting that site serve medical marijuana patients would allow the city “to gain control over marijuana until the state implements their adult-use industry,” he said.

Mourmouras said that although the state has only licensed eight medical marijuana dispensaries, it does let any licensed caregiver serve five patients, growing up to six plants for each client. According to Morelli, “it is now very common for multiple caregivers to lease separate locked spaces in a single commercial/industrial facility with access to the necessary utilities and climate control” to grow the allowed number of marijuana plants. However, without a legal dispensary, Mourmouras said, those caregivers are forced to meet with their clients at their homes, in parking lots and on side streets.

Darrell Gudroe, who operates a medical marijuana caregiver storefront in Boothby called The Pharmers Market, said he hopes to bring a similar operation to South Portland at 200 Gorham Road. Allowing such a site, Gudroe said, would enable “the space needed to provide patients with a safe, secure, private, and comfortable setting to discuss and purchase their medicine.”

Tucker Noyes, who runs Grow Home Inc., a medical marijuana cultivation and consultation company based in Westbrook, said allowing medical marijuana offices would enable South Portland “to test how a few of these storefronts would function in preparation for the recreational market” to come.

The decision faced by the council Tuesday was whether to have Mourmouras, Gudroe and Noyes pursue individual zoning text changes for the sites they’ve chosen, which would send them to the planning board as a first step, or to tackle the issue head-on and citywide, by developing ordinance updates that would “broadly align the zoning requirements for medical marijuana office and storefronts with those of recreational marijuana storefronts.”

Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said he preferred the latter option, adding that, in essence, such a change would allow a medical marijuana storefront to go anywhere now approved for retail marijuana sales.

“From a staff standpoint, I think that would be the easiest and cleanest way to do it,” he said.

Current rules, which provide for just one state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary in South Portland, would allow any such business to locate no closer than 1,000 feet to a variety of existing land uses, including churches and schools. The rules created last year for retail marijuana retain the 1,000-foot setback from schools, but would allow a retail store to locate within 300 feet of a church. Morelli said that even if that becomes the law of the land, it would still hobble Gudroe’s proposal, as 200 Gorham Road is within 300 feet of the lot line for the new EastPoint Christian Church at 345 Clarks Pond Parkway.

However, councilors seemed more concerned with other aspects of the proposal, especially given operational standards cited by Mourmouras.

According to Mourmouras, medical marijuana “started as a cottage industry that’s really grown in the past seven to eight years.” Part of the reason for that growth, he said, is a DHHS practice to essentially look the other way on the limit of five patients per caregiver. Each patient has to be documented, but the state allows the fifth patient to “revolve,” such that a person is only officially a “patient” for the time it takes to purchase his or her marijuana.

Mourmouras said this allows Wellness Connection, which operates four of the eight dispensaries licensed by the state, to serve as many as 80 people per day at its location on Congress Street in Portland. His own South Portland operation, Mourmouras said, might easily see as many as 15 to 20 patients per day, despite the official five-patient limit.

“Once you leave the storefront you are no longer my patient and that fifth slot opens back up,” he said.

And, despite the fact that medical marijuana has existed in South Portland for nearly a decade, several councilors expressed concern for how exactly one gets licensed by the state to be a caregiver. Councilors Sue Henderson and Maxine Beecher sounded particularly dubious, questioning the medical qualifications of potential caregivers, and how they are able to judge the precise dosage to give in order to fill a doctor’s prescription.

“There isn’t really a vetting of what your knowledge is, as to whether or not you can be a caregiver,” Mourmouras said, adding that the only real impediment to obtaining a DHHS license is passing the background check.

“Unfortunately, a lot of it comes down to experience (with marijuana) and that’s what we’re hoping for with these storefronts,” Mourmouras said, suggesting that such operations would allow caregivers to work more closely with “medical professionals.”

Others, like Councilor Kate Lewis, questioned if medical marijuana storefronts might evolve into retail shops, especially given Gudroe’s admission that, “My partners are interested in opening up as may establishments as we are allowed.”

“There is a noble intent there with regard to medical marijuana, but I for one am very skeptical that this could be construed as a scheme to skirt the law,” Lewis said. “I just wonder what the short- and long-term implications are in allowing something before all of it is allowed. I have concerns about our very good intentions getting sort of violated for other means.”

Reaction among audience members ran the gamut, from pro to con.

“There’s nothing clean about this at all. It’s still illegal under federal law, which we’ve all decided to ignore,” said Simonton Street resident Diane Romano.

“I would advise you to tread lightly and ask that you seek additional guidance from your corporation council,” agreed Summit Street resident Jeff Selser, an attorney. “You’re in a tough situation here in that you are trying to regulate something that is prohibited by federal law.”

Selser said much ground was gained by proponents of marijuana legalization thanks to an Obama era memo that directed the Department of Justice to not pursue enforcement. However, under current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that directive has been rescinded.

“You may be heading down a road where everything you do is in direct violation of federal law, which could now be prosecuted,” Selser said.

Bill Duffy, of Ocean View Avenue, said he personally benefited from medical marijuana, which was “the only thing” that helped him through cancer treatments.

“To find something like this in this area would be a big boon to those suffering from chronic pain. It would be a major, major thing,” he said.

“All my life people have been saying pot is going to be the downfall of civilization, and yet here we are, and we have actually discovered this remarkable, beneficial use for it,” said Cottage Street resident Jeffrey Steinbrink. “I would just remind everyone that there is this benefit, and that reefer madness has not overtaken us.”

For the most part, the council appeared to side with the more permissive view.

“Who am I to tell someone who has a serious illness that they can’t have what they need to deal with what they have to deal with to get by every day,” said Mayor Linda Cohen.

“It seems to me that, philosophically, we’ve already established ourselves as to what’s permissible,” Morgan said. “We spent a lot of time on this and we worked out a fair system so that even folks who objected to the (2016 legalization) referendum and its passage, they would enjoy protections, too. Now, we’re into it for a pound, we’re into it for a penny.

“As I see it, the city itself has no reason to fear,” Morgan said. “If the feds come with guns-a-blazing, it will be at these people (selling marijuana) and maybe their landlords, and maybe their bankers. But it won’t be the city. All we have done is respond to a request in a referendum in a very responsible way.”

“I just wish everyone would understand the history of (marijuana) prohibition in this country in the 1930s and its very racist overtones, which mirrors our attorney general’s view on life,” said Councilor Eben Rose.

Morelli said the council was due to re-examine its new retail marijuana rules in May anyway, including if and how to allow sales as a home occupation.

The council asked Morelli to come back to them with a set of ordinance updates that would more closely align with existing rules for medical marijuana with the newer allowances for retail operation, while also facilitating the three requests to amend zoning to enable the opening of medical marijuana offices.

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