ELLSWORTH, Maine — Signs, home delivery and location were key issues Monday night as city officials wrestled with proposed ordinance changes designed to regulate the location and licensing of a medical marijuana dispensary in the city.
The city now has a moratorium on such dispensaries, which runs out in January, and the city’s planning department has been working on the ordinance changes that spell out how and where the dispensaries can be located in the city.
City planner Michelle Gagnon explained that under the state law a dispensary could be a distribution center, a growing center or a combined facility. Whatever the company decides, however, will have to be at one location in Ellsworth, she said.
“They can be a retail facility, they can cultivate [marijuana], or they can do retail and cultivation together,” she said. “But it all has to be at one physical location.”
Those locations will have to be in the city’s Commercial Light Industrial and Industrial 1 zones, which include areas on the Bucksport (Route 1 and 3) and Bangor (Route 1A) roads and on Route 1 beyond the Triangle.
The ordinance also would prohibit dispensaries from locating within 500 feet of the property line of sensitive establishments such as schools, parks, libraries, substance abuse rehab centers, homeless shelters and churches.
Anthony Lusardi, representing Maine Organic Therapy, the nonprofit company the state has approved to operate a dispensary in the district, which includes Hancock and Washington counties, urged the council to consider expanding the allowed area.
Lusardi expressed concern that the permitted sites were out of the way and might discourage business. He said the company would like to be located in a retail area, such as High Street.
“We’re a family business,” he said. “We don’t want to cause anyone grief, but we do want to conduct a business that is viable for us.”
City Manager Michelle Beal pointed out that the areas designated for the dispensary were on busy roads that would provide visibility and were in areas targeted by the city for future economic development.
Proposed limits on the signs for the establishment became a free speech issue for the officials, an issue that city attorney John Hamer said could become a problem in the future. He recommended dropping the restrictions from the ordinance.
“This is a mine field if it’s adopted the way it is,” he said.
The language in the proposed ordinance attempts to regulate speech, he said, which could open the city to lawsuits in the future, especially since this would single out Maine Organic Therapy for those restrictions.
Newly elected councilor Michael Boucher said that he understood the city attorney’s point.
“You can wear a pot leaf on a T-shirt; you can’t regulate that,” he said. “Regulating signs in that manner is the same thing.”
Councilor John Phillips agreed, but only to a point.
“I understand that,” he said, “but I don’t want to drive into town and see Cheech and Chong on a sign with a big doobie in their mouth.”
City Manager Michelle Beal explained that the language was included in order to emphasize that the facility was for medical marijuana and to prevent any promotion of recreational use of marijuana, through slang or images, which, she reminded the meeting, is still illegal.
Gary Fortier, who was recently elected as council chairman, acknowledged the concerns but said he was reluctant to go against the advice of the city attorney. A straw poll showed the majority of officials agreed they should strike the specific sign regulations from the ordinance.
Home delivery of marijuana also raised concerns. The proposed ordinance would have prohibited delivery of marijuana to patients.
Planning board member Darrell Wilson said a plan for delivery provided by Maine Organic Therapy was “inadequate,” and Councilor Stephen Beathem said he foresaw “a lot of problems” that could develop with home delivery.
Others, however, said they were concerned about patients who might have to travel distances to obtain their doses of medical marijuana.
Ellsworth Police Chief John DeLeo, who would have to approve a delivery service as part of the dispensary’s security plan, noted that the district covers a large area and that some of those patients or their caregivers would have to travel as much as 250 miles round trip to get to Ellsworth. He suggested that home delivery should be allowed.
“If there are safeguards in the plan, we should allow it,” he said.
The planning board will review the final version of the ordinance changes at its next meeting on Dec. 1. The board will make a recommendation to the City Council, which is expected to act on the proposed regulations at its next meeting on Dec. 13.