FRENCHVILLE, Maine — There are still a lot of loose ends to wrap up in Maine’s new medical marijuana program, but way up north on the Canadian border, pot plants have been under quiet — and legal — cultivation since the beginning of October at Safe Alternatives, the first operational state-licensed growing facility in Maine.
In a phone conversation on Friday, Leo Trudel, founder of the Safe Alternatives nonprofit organization, would not disclose how many plants are growing at his Route 1 facility on the outskirts of Frenchville. Nor would he say how much usable marijuana he expects to harvest and distribute when the plants mature at the end of December, calling that information proprietary and a security risk.
“It’s enough to fill the facility to growing capacity,” he said. The marijuana will not be ready to distribute until February.
The growing operation, secured with steel doors, motion detectors, surveillance cameras, and both hard-wired and wireless alarm systems, is located inside a house Trudel owns in Frenchville. No one lives in the gambrel-style house.
Although the growing operation is established at the Route 1 location, many questions remain about the siting of a state-approved Safe Alternatives marijuana dispensary. Trudel wants to open the retail storefront in a refurbished garage on the same property as the growing operation, but local officials and residents have some serious concerns.
At a public meeting in November, voters enacted a 180-day moratorium on the opening of a marijuana dispensary in the town. Retroactive to August, the moratorium will expire Feb. 10. At the same meeting, selectmen agreed to form a committee to explore local concerns about security, visibility, traffic, law enforcement and diversion. The 26-member committee includes both supporters and opponents of the Safe Alternatives operation, as well as all members of the town’s Board of Selectmen and planning board. The ad hoc committee is charged with making recommendations to the selectmen before the end of the year.
Town Manager Phil Levesque said area residents understand that for some people, marijuana can offer relief from the medical conditions for which its use is approved by the new state program. That doesn’t mean they don’t have serious concerns about the impact of a marijuana operation in their community.
“A lot of people are concerned about the safety of it,” he said, especially because Frenchville has no police force of its own but relies on the presence of the Maine State Police and the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department.
In addition, he said, many residents fear the facility will lead to an increase in the recreational use of marijuana, which remains illegal under state and federal law.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to teach our children to say no to drugs, and now we’re dispensing it,” Levesque said.
Selectman Gary Picard heads up the ad hoc committee. He said Friday that some community members remain “perturbed” about the presence of a marijuana dispensary in their town.
“At first, people thought we could make this go away altogether, but it’s not within our authority to do that,” he said. “They’re starting to realize there is nothing we can do to stop a facility like this that wants to be in our town; we can only limit where [in the town] it can be located.”
The Safe Alternatives operation, one of eight regional marijuana facilities authorized by last year’s referendum vote, will serve all of Aroostook County. That makes for a long drive for patients from, say, Macwahoc or Sherman Mills. Trudel said his business plan envisions a home-delivery network that brings marijuana to the debilitated patients who need it most and who are registered with the state’s new system.
Trudel, who lives in Fort Kent and has worked for six years as an assistant professor of business at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, said he is “a little bit surprised” at the local resistance to the presence of Safe Alternatives in Frenchville. He said one selectman has proposed that, for security purposes, the dispensary should be surrounded by a 10-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
“How would you feel if you were a patient coming to a place like that?” Trudel asked. “That’s not a therapeutic environment; it’s a prison.”
Many people mistakenly believe the dispensary project is aimed primarily at making money, Trudel said.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “This has been about patients’ rights from the beginning. This is a safe, honest effort to get effective medicine to people who need it.”
Trudel’s son, also named Leo Trudel, is a 2007 graduate of Colby College who served on the gubernatorial campaign staffs of Democrat Patrick McGowan and independent Eliot Cutler. The younger Trudel is not affiliated with Safe Alternatives.
Other marijuana dispensaries are in various stages of development in Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, Ellsworth, Portland, Waldoboro and York.