FORT KENT, Maine — Safe Alternatives, Aroostook County’s first state-approved medical marijuana growing facility, is up and running in Frenchville with a contact list of close to a dozen people with conditions ranging from terminal cancer to multiple sclerosis requesting the herbal drug.
What is lacking, according to Leo Trudel, the business’s co-founders and spokesman, is a municipally approved dispensary for their product.
Since August, Trudel, a business professor at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, has been working with Frenchville municipal officials to open a medical marijuana dispensary on property he currently owns in that town.
Early this month residents voted down an ordinance governing dispensing and cultivating medical marijuana within town limits and imposed an additional 180-day moratorium on the issue.
The move marked the second time voters went for the 180-day moratorium which was initially approved in November.
“Frenchville [officials] originally issued Safe Alternatives a building permit to renovate the property knowing full well what our intent was,” Trudel said this past week from his UMFK office. “I was totally upfront and transparent on what Safe Alternatives was planning to do.”
Safe Alternatives is one of eight medical marijuana dispensaries approved by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services last June and the only one in Aroostook County.
Frenchville’s proposed ordinance is based on one approved by the city of Caribou and, as Trudel said, “tweaked” by Frenchville’s select board.
As presented by that committee, the ordinance has several provisions that target Safe Alternatives’ ability to conduct business, according to Trudel.
Among them are a 100-foot setback for the business from the property line and a 300-foot buffer from an existing residence.
“They knew straight out the property is less than 100 feet from the property line,” Trudel said. “All along [the selectmen] talked about ‘grandfathering’ Safe Alternatives, and now all of a sudden they are claiming they never talked about that.”
The proposed ordinance also called for Safe Alternatives to keep security camera tapes for 90 days, far exceeding the same standards covering the most regulated industry in the state — gambling.
“The casino is required to keep the tapes from cameras over the gambling tables seven days and on the money cages for 14 days,” he said. “So they are placing an unfair burden on Safe Alternatives.”
Equally burdensome, he said, are the proposed provisions stipulating who can work at Safe Alternatives.
According to the proposed ordinance anyone with a state or federal controlled substance conviction is prohibited from working at the growing facility or dispensary.
“They are telling Safe Alternatives who they can and cannot hire,” Trudel said, who says employing an individual who has served time for illegal marijuana cultivation is no different than large corporations hiring convicted computer hackers to work on computer security.
Likewise the proposed ordinance states Safe Alternatives’ permits could be in danger if any employee or board member violates or knowingly causes someone to violate a list of crimes, causes a disturbance to nearby residents, or creates traffic problems.
“Safe Alternatives has a board of directors and now if one of them does something wrong all of a sudden we don’t have a permit?” Trudel said. “How does that work?”
Trudel said Safe Alternatives is committed to bringing legal medical marijuana to Aroostook County and educating patients in its proper use, as he knows there are people out there who are in need of the comfort it can bring in cases of cancer, multiple sclerosis, wasting disease and Crohn’s disease.
In addition to the relief it can bring, medical marijuana makes good economic sense to the patient and Maine taxpayers, when traditional pain control medication can cost as much as $4,000 a month for someone on MaineCare, according to trudel.
For that same case, Trudel said, the cost of a one-month supply of Safe Alternatives medical marijuana would be $250.
At the same time, he is growing more and more disenchanted with the process.
“I was told from the beginning by officials in Frenchville we are going to work together,” Trudel said. “Now I end up finding out about every [dispensary advisory meeting] from another member of that board who is in favor of what we are doing, and I was told lack of official notification was an ‘oversight.’”
He acknowledged that the new Frenchville Town Manager Casey Cote has been good about communicating to Safe Alternatives about the current steps in the process.
“The next step is for the advisory group to meet and consider the comments and suggestions made at the last public hearing,” Cote said Friday afternoon. “Changes will be made to the proposed ordinance.”
The proposed ordinance must then work its away again through the Board of Selectmen, planning board and public hearing and comment process.
“The state law does say [Safe Alternatives] can have its license to dispense medical marijuana,” Cote said. “But the law also allows individual towns to strengthen the law where they see the need.”
Cote said Safe Alternatives has the necessary state and local permits to grow the medical marijuana. “He has to start his product,” she said.
“Now we all have to move forward and find a solution that protects both sides,” the town manager said. “We will certainly be taking all concerns and comments into consideration.”
Cote added she is committed to remaining unbiased as the process unfolds.
Trudel said he knows Safe Alternatives has an uphill battle and has been told by at least one Frenchville board member his business is not welcome in Frenchville.
“Safe Alternatives believes in persistence,” Trudel said. “The bottom line is this is really about helping people who need it.”