April 27, 2018
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Ellsworth extends marijuana dispensary moratorium

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — City Councilors on Monday extended the city’s moratorium on marijuana dispensaries, giving city planners more time to develop an ordinance to regulate those facilities.

City Planner Michelle Gagnon told councilors the planning department had not yet developed an ordinance to regulate the siting of the marijuana dispensaries, due in part to delays in Augusta in developing statewide rules to govern the operation of those facilities.

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“We’ve had some proposed regulations,” Gagnon said. “We’re still in limbo.”

The Department of Health and Human Services adopted emergency rules on May 5, and since has developed proposed regulations governing the medical marijuana dispensaries. The public comment period on the proposed rules ended last week.

Included in the emergency rules are lengthy and costly requirements for would-be dispensary operators, including a $15,000 application fee, according to previous reports. Friday is the deadline for potential operators to file applications with the DHHS.

The city has organized a committee to look at local regulations for these facilities, Gagnon said. The committee includes representatives from the planning department, city law enforcement and from the medical community, and is similar to the committee created to review standards for siting methadone clinics in the city.

Gagnon said Tuesday the city will need to consider a number of land use issues related specifically to the facilities, such as security plans, buffers, the disposal of unused portions of the plants and whether a growing facility should be separate from a dispensary. In addition, any ordinance also will have to address normal planning issues including parking and traffic.

The department has been reviewing ordinances from communities around the country where dispensaries have operated. Gagnon also said the department is working with the American Planners Association, which is serving as a clearinghouse for information about different approaches to dealing with the marijuana dispensaries.

Gagnon said the city is particularly looking at Rhode Island, one of the four states where marijuana dispensaries are legal. She said Rhode Island seems to have more in common with Maine than California, where dispensaries have been operating for a number of years.

Maine voters in 2009 approved a referendum that allowed medical marijuana patients or their caregivers to buy marijuana legally from nonprofit, government-sanctioned dispensaries. The Legislature in April approved a bill allowing up to eight such dispensaries statewide, one in each public health district established by the state.

Ellsworth is located in the Down East health district, which includes all of Hancock and Washington counties, making Ellsworth a potential site for one of the dispensaries.

In response to questions from councilors, Gagnon said that while the city’s moratorium could be challenged in court, it could not be overruled by the state. City Manager Michelle Beal added that if one of the potential operators should choose to site a dispensary in Ellsworth, the city could not stop it. But, she said, nothing could be built or operated in the city until the council has adopted an ordinance to regulate the facilities and issued a permit to the operator.

Although the council vote to extend the moratorium was unanimous, Councilor Pam Perkins expressed concern that the city not set up road blocks to the dispensaries.

“The people voted for this,” she said. “We need to make sure it is an allowed use in the city of Ellsworth.”

Gagnon agreed and said the city needed to adopt standards to ensure the operation of a dispensary was safe for Ellsworth residents and compatible with the areas surrounding its location.

Gagnon told councilors the planning department will put together information for them to review and likely will schedule a workshop with them in the near future.

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