2018-01-19 / Front Page

Retail pot ban headed for town’s voters

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Hot on the heels of a Jan. 8 unanimous planning board recommendation that it do so, Kennebunk selectmen have followed through by agreeing to pass on to voters a proposal to ban all commercial marijuana operations from town.

The ordinance, which would not affect medical marijuana or the right of residents to grow, posses, or use the drug in their own homes, would apply to all cultivation, testing, manufacture, and offering of the product for retail sale. Also out would be so-called marijuana social clubs, where people could consume the drug, which was legalized in a November 2016 statewide referendum, although it remains a controlled substance under federal law. The 2016 vote lets Mainers possess up to six mature marijuana plants and 2.5 ounces of the processed drug ready to consume.

However, even absent a local ban, the substance is not yet ready for prime time, given continued wrangling of state lawmakers over how best to regulate the drug for retail sale. Based on the federal ban, Gov. Paul LePage remains opposed to state licensing of all retail marijuana operations. To date, the legislature has proven unable to craft a veto-proof framework for the requisite regulatory structure.

That means pot shops will not open anytime soon, but most selectmen are hoping voters will amend that possibility to something closer to never. The board voted 6-1 Jan. 9 to pass the language for banning commercial marijuana operations on to voters.

In the one change from the plan of attack signaled when selectmen sat with the planning board the previous night, board members agreed to schedule the vote for the regular town meeting in June. Previously, the hope was to send the outlawing ordinance to a special town meeting in March, in order to get the ban in place before the moratorium expires April 4.

Voters agreed in February 2017 to a marijuana moratorium, backdating it to before the November 2016 vote, and selectmen have twice renewed the temporary ban, which allows the town to refuse any site plan applications or licensing requests for commercial marijuana operations. Although there is no way to approve such a business absent the enabling state regulations, without the moratorium, a person or corporation could technically submit an application that would act as a sort of placeholder, freezing applicable zoning rules to those in place at the time the application was submitted.

Town officials say no one has submitted any such application, and selectmen can vote any time to extend the moratorium for an additional 180 days, without putting the question to voters.

“I think this gives more transparency and it gives more people a chance to actually see it and vote on it,” selectman William Ward said of the move to a June vote, held in conjunction with the annual town meeting budget referendum.

Selectmen Ed Karytko positioned his support for a June vote by referencing Rachel Phipps, a member of RSU 21 Board of Directors and the town economic development committee, who had stumped for the June vote on the grounds it would draw more participation at the polls than a special town meeting held in March.

“Quite frankly, I would get one checkmark on the attaboy column on Rachel’s list,” Karytko joked.

A June 12 vote will mean the ordinance to ban commercial marijuana operations from Kennebunk will be subject to public hearings on April 10 and May 21, with absentee ballots available for early voting as soon as May 14.

A public hearing on extending the current moratorium will be scheduled before that vote occurs.

“We have a month and a half before that needs to be addressed,” board chairman Dick Morin said.

Phipps took the podium to praise the board for moving the vote to June, but still urged town officials to prepare and distribute an economic analysis of the question.

Members of the planning board said their recommendation for the full, permanent ban on retail marijuana sales was based on “extensive research.” However, under questioning from Phipps and her husband, budget board member John Costin, no one could quantify claims that the cost to the town to regulate and enforce rules governing commercial marijuana sales would outstrip whatever the town might take in from taxation on those operations.

In June 2017, Wells enacted a full ban on retail marijuana sales, while Kennebunkport followed suit in November. Kennebunk officials have cited fears that any pot shops in Kennebunk would serve not just locals, but would act as a magnet on buyers, of a presumably unsavory type, from across the region.

“We should do an analysis of what the town could bring in, because it could be an enormous amount of funds,” Phipps said, adding that, “We have two people on the board of selectmen who make their livelihoods partially by selling alcohol and cigarettes — an enormous amount of them.

“My question is, have we quantified the amount we spend on public safety due to the sale of alcohol in this town,” Phipps asked. “Can anybody give me that number?”

“I know it’s a lot,” said selectman Dan Boothby, who manages Cummings’ Market.

“The most successful businesses in town of Kennebunk over the past decade have been taverns and bars,” Phipps said. “The new bowling alley serves alcohol. It seems really discriminatory to just wipe off an entire sector of businesses because culturally we don’t like it.”

However, Morin said any attempt to put hard numbers to the potential windfall and/or infrastructure cost of local marijuana sales will be near impossible to get at least until the legislature adopts regulation with enough support to override a second likely LePage veto.

“We need the state of Maine to make their decisions before we can make a true assessment,” he said.

Morin also said any ban can always be undone once the state regulatory structure and its impact no local municipalities comes into focus.

“All we are doing is driving a stake into the ground, but that stake can be pulled of the evidence changes and the financial profile is as generous as you suggest it might be,” he said. “We can certainly revisit this at any time.”

Residents Mike Mosher, also a member of the school board, rose to support the ban, and called Phipps’ comparison of marijuana to alcohol and tobacco, “a little bit silly.”

“But tonight’s not the night to hammer that out,” he said, observing that the only business before selectmen was the question of whether or not to pass the ordinance on for a public vote. The two public hearings will be the time to debate the relative merits, or not, of the ban, Mosher said.

Costin, meanwhile, maintained retail marijuana might be worth $200 million in tax revenue to the state, with towns that agree to allow retail sales likely to reap 5 percent or more of that revenue.

“Five percent is $1 million a year,” Costin said. “To say no amount of money is worth it? I think that’s shortsighted. Prohibiting it isn’t going to stop it. A million dollars is a lot of money. Every year we talk about whether we can afford a piece of firefighting equipment or if we can afford to take care of people through public assistance programs. It could be as much as a million a year, I’m surprised that there’s been no consideration of that number.”

“You should come equipped on April 10 and May 21 with the evidence you’d like to present, and others will do the same,” Morin said.

“I don’t want to be the Guinea pig on this,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “Let’s put this [ban] in place and let’s see what happens. If we think this is profitable, if Arundel is making a killing on this over there, maybe we can look at it again.”

Costin countered that his real argument is that Kennebunk needs to have zoning and licensing rules related to marijuana ready to go, just in case.

“You’re assuming the voters are going to approve this [ban],” he told Cluff. “But what if the voters vote it down? Then the town is more vulnerable than everybody’s fear of how vulnerable it is today.”

But Ward said the town has plenty of time to act on needed zoning rules if voters reject the prohibition on marijuana sales. Assuming selectmen renew the current moratorium, it would remain in effect for 180 days, to October.

“It’s a lot easier to let the cat out of the bag in a year or two than it is to let it out now and then try to pull it back,” Cluff said.

Karytko maintained the sale of marijuana will not be the pot of gold many presume, although he too failed to give the hard numbers Phipps and Costin have asked for.

“I know John is talking about the dollars and cents, but I’m trying to realistically look at that, and I can almost guarantee that if you tried to understand the revenue coming in versus the cost of police and the cost of all the other things we are going to have to have, it’s going to take you a year and a half. But when I listened to the fellow from Colorado who came out, and listened to the data he had [from where marijuana has been legalized for retail sale], there was nothing positive about this whole situation, even on the revenue side.”

Selectman Shiloh Schulte voted against sending the ban to voters, only due to the timing.

“I do think we should send this to voters, absolutely,” he said. “But since we know the state is not moving on this until May, we will not have enough time to discuss this with all the information before a June meeting.”

Schulte said he preferred to extend the current moratorium twice if need be, and push any vote to ban commercial marijuana operations to November.

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

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