2017-01-06 / Front Page

Town sets date for marijuana vote

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Following the lead of more than 40 Maine municipalities since last fall’s statewide vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana, local towns are looking to place a temporary ban on the retail sales, commercial cultivation and social consumption of the drug.

Kennebunk will conduct a referendum vote on adopting a 90-day freeze on allowing marijuana shops and “social clubs,” on Tuesday, Feb. 28, with polls open from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. in the town hall auditorium.

Selectmen in Arundel also have recently debated moratorium proposals, while Kennebunkport selectmen have chosen to adopt a wait-and-see stance.

“We don’t get to say no, just where and how,” Chairman Stuart Barwise said at the most recent meeting of the Kennebunkport Board of Selectmen. “Rushing into a moratorium is not, in my view, the way to go.”

“There’s no need to rush this,” Selectman Patrick Briggs agreed. “It’s prudent to wait and see how things sort out in other areas. I don’t think there’s a line out the door [for license applications].”

“I voted to pass it, although I still don’t want to see any dispensaries [here],” Selectman Ed Hutchins said at the meeting. “But I don’t have a good handle on this — I haven’t been to Colorado, so I can’t even wrap my head around how this would work — and I don’t want to sound like some old guy making the decisions.”

Statewide, the vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana passed by just 4,073 votes, of nearly 760,000 ballots cast. Locally, Arundel was most in favor of the change, with 54.1 percent of voters saying yes. Results in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport were much closer, however, with 50.3 and 50.9 percent in favor, respectively.

On Dec. 17, deep into a long and laborious recount of the Nov. 8 results, the forces for maintaining prohibition threw in the towel. Representatives for Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, conceded a full recount would likely fail to change enough votes to undo the result. That clears the way for legal possession as of January 15 of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for those age 21 and older. The new law also would allow individuals to have up to six mature marijuana plants, 12 immature plants, and an unlimited amount of seeds or seedlings.

According to Alysia Melnick, an attorney with the Portland firm Bernstein Shur who served as political director for the Yes on 1 campaign, those personal liberties become effective as soon as the new law goes on the books.

It could take a bit longer for marijuana stores to begin sprouting up, however. That’s because the statute passed by the Question 1 vote gives the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry nine months to create rules for the licensing and operation of retail sales and cultivation operations, as well as establishment of social clubs, private establishments where members could consume marijuana openly.

Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith said she and Town Planner Werner Gilliam want to be “on the right page” with zoning suggestions at the ready for a town meeting vote as soon as the state has promulgated its rules. Any zoning change would then need to go to a public vote.

“Our perspective is that the rules [making process] for state licensure will take most of 2017,” she said. “If they are ready to accept licenses, we should be ready as well. For that to happen we’d need to go to voters and there’s only two times per year when we can do that without a lot of fuss — in June and November. But there are many steps to go to understand the process.”

Smith said the Maine Municipal Association will conduct legal training for municipal officers on dealing with legalization “sometime in February.”

With the state unlikely to have its work done by June, Smith suggested a November vote would be the more realistic option. Factoring into whether or not to adopt a moratorium now, she said, is that fact that, by state law, a temporary ban on accepting development proposals of a certain type can only last for six months, although state law does allow a moratorium can be renewed twice, for a total of 18 months, so long as the municipality can show it is making good faith progress on enacting the ordinance changes needed to deal with specific new development. With that in mind, Smith said in made little sense to essentially burn up the first six months.

“In makes sense to be in a little bit better place, a better foundation, as to where we’re heading before we would considers a moratorium,” she said. “I don’t think it’s necessary at this point, considering that we are so far away from that goal line.”

“At this point, its an academic situation. It would just be a political statement to have a moratorium,” Barwise said. “Let’s not take action because we can, let’s wait and take action because we should.”

In Arundel, selectmen decided at their most recent session to look into adopting a moratorium, although it set no firm dates for action. Instead, they directed Town Manager Keith Trefethen to research the requirements for public hearings and other action preparatory to calling a town meeting.

“We’re obviously not alone in this. So, we can see what others are doing,” Selectman Thomas Danylik said.

Selectmen Jason Nedeau also wanted to know the process by which Arundel might be able to opt out of the law altogether. Much as with the 2012 legalization of consumer fireworks, individual municipalities can ban all retail operations — essentially becoming a “dry town” —although possession would still remain legal.

Unlike Smith, Trefethen urged his town officers to act because of the uncertainty involved.

“We don’t have any [local] legislation in place, but voters have technically approved this, so what stops somebody from walking in the door and saying, look, I want to get going” he said.

“But how can our planning board put something in place if we’re waiting on the state to act,” asked Selectman Dan Dubois.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Trefethen said. “But a moratorium would allow you to take some time to figure out what is going to happen, and then act.”

In contrast to both Arundel and Kennebunkport, selectmen in Kennebunk began work on a moratorium back in October, about a month before anyone knew for certain which way the vote would go.

As with Arundel, uncertainly of what was to come was the primary motivating factor. Town attorney William Dale pointed out that the state legislature can still tweak the 30- page statute voters adopted in November.

“Just because there was 30 pages of drafted text we all voted yes or no on, there is nothing in Maine law that prohibits the state legislature from subsequently amending those 30 pages,” Dale said. “They could take out half of it, add another 20 pages, take our five, add another 10. That’s all permissible under state law. So, the vote is not necessarily the last word.”

If voters do approve the moratorium at the Feb. 28 vote, it will be backdated to be effect as of Oct. 11, 2016, the first reading of the marijuana ban before selectmen. That would mean a possible second vote on a renewal of the moratorium could be held in April.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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