Dispensing Marijuana

Posted April 23, 2010, at 6:14 p.m.

The Bangor City Council is right to take a thoughtful approach to locating marijuana dispensaries here. What it can’t do — although many other communities have — is put up impediments and pretend the dispensaries will simply go away.

In November, 59 percent of Maine voters approved a measure to establish medical marijuana dispensaries across the state; 56.5 percent of Bangor votes approved the measure. There can be up to eight such facilities statewide.

This follows a vote 10 years earlier to allow the growth and use of medical marijuana for certain conditions. The state, however, did not come up with a plan to make marijuana available to those qualified to use it. Hence last year’s referendum.

State and local officials can’t ignore the voters again, so they must find ways to safely make marijuana available to those with medical needs for it. To be clear, the state and municipalities won’t be distributing the marijuana, but they must write laws to make distribution possible, straightforward and safe.

As they look for ways to implement the law, there are examples to follow. Thirteen states have laws allowing medical marijuana. Colorado has more than 60 dispensaries and recently began taxing medical marijuana sales, which is expected to add $15 million to the state’s coffers annually. There have been thefts from dispensaries, prompting others to limit their hours and take other steps to improve security.

Bangor’s often-maligned methadone clinics can also be instructive. The clinics, despite public concerns, have largely operated without problems.

Zoning rules require them to be away from schools, churches, libraries, playgrounds and parks. They also are not allowed in residential zones and can be located only on major arterial streets.

At the same time, Bangor councilors are right to be worried that the city will become a center for these facilities. There are currently three methadone clinics in Bangor and none in any other communities in Penobscot County. Although about 80 percent of the clinics’ clients come from Penobscot County, certainly not all of them are from Bangor.

The methadone clinic analogy only goes so far, however. Medical marijuana dispensaries are more like drugstores than drug dependency clinics. Their clients will be people seeking relief from nausea caused by cancer treatments or from pain due to multiple sclerosis, not drug addicts. Councilors must consider whether the city really needs special rules to protect its residents from women with breast cancer or grandparents with glaucoma.

Bangor, and other cities, have an obligation to write ordinances to accommodate medical marijuana dispensaries, not to keep them outside their boundaries.

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