PORTLAND, Maine — The smoke hasn’t cleared on what the final regulations will look like for a still-evolving state law allowing marijuana dispensaries in Maine, yet towns and cities are taking it upon themselves to pass moratoriums on pot shops.
Municipal officials say they need time to create rules of their own to address questions such as where marijuana retailers will be allowed in their towns and how many there can be.
Creating local zoning rules for cannabis shops is a “new frontier” because nobody has had to deal with them before, said Auburn City Manager Glenn Aho. Auburn is among the places that have enacted or plan to enact moratoriums to give them time to develop local zoning regulations over the dispensaries.
“We’re treating it as we would any other new type of business use,” Aho said.
Voters in November approved a statewide referendum that changes Maine’s decade-old medical marijuana law. The new law expands the conditions under which people can be prescribed the drug to ease pain, while making Maine the fifth state to allow retail dispensaries where patients can legally buy pot with a doctor’s prescription.
Since the election, a 14-member task force has met four times to work out the kinks of the new law. A task force’s recommendations, which were delivered to Gov. John Baldacci on Wednesday, will be further reviewed so legislation can be proposed.
The task force recommended closing loopholes that could allow abuse of the drug or weaken law enforcement, creating a board of medical professionals to recommend additional medical conditions that could be covered by the law, and to ensure the program is closely monitored so changes can be made. It also agreed to not predetermine the number and location of dispensaries.
Referendum opponents have pointed to Los Angeles, where hundreds of cannabis outlets have popped up in the past few years, as evidence that marijuana dispensaries are a bad idea. The Los Angeles City Council this week approved a zoning ordinance that will cap the number of medical marijuana clinics in the city at 70.
In Maine, Bangor officials are already working to incorporate marijuana dispensaries into the city’s zoning regulations. Auburn, Brewer, Ellsworth and South Portland have passed or intend to pass moratoriums on dispensaries.
Others could follow suit. A number of towns and cities have contacted Brewer’s planning office looking for a template for a moratorium, said City Manager Stephen Bost.
Jonathan Leavitt, who heads the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative, which organized the referendum campaign for the new law, said he’s comfortable with towns enacting moratoriums between now and June to buy time to create local regulations.
“But we’re also cautioning towns that we’re prepared to bring about possible litigation if any towns go beyond that time period,” said Leavitt. “We feel the voters have spoken loud and clear on this, and if municipal officials feel they have the right to get in the way of the will of the voters, then they’re in the wrong job.”
The new law allows towns to pass “reasonable” rules to govern dispensaries, Leavitt said. That might mean rules that state where they can be located, how many there might be and how far they have to be from schools, parks and other public gathering places.
For the most part, marijuana dispensary operators want to be treated like any other business, he said.
“We want to be treated like the hardware store, like the local pharmacy, like the local convenience store, like the gas station,” Leavitt said. “These are safe and healthy parts of the community and they will show themselves to be that.”