Town councilors are seeking more legal guidance before they make a decision on how to address changes to state laws on medical marijuana rules and regulations.
The topic garnered significant discussion on during the Feb. 11 meeting, when Councilor Sue Tortello, who also is on the planning board, gave an update on that panel’s progress.
Tortello noted that councilors voted on Dec. 26, 2018, to establish a moratorium on medical marijuana retail stores, dispensaries, and testing and manufacturing facilities. There is one existing store in town that was grandfathered in.
She said that there is now an enhanced authority for local boards such as the council to regulate such facilities. She said that the planning board members decided that before they move forward, they need the councilors to decide whether to opt in or opt out to allow such marijuana establishments in Houlton.
“The default position is that if you do nothing, new uses are prohibited,” she said. “These establishments won’t be allowed unless we vote as a legislative body to opt in.”
The planning board asked councilors to consider the moratorium as a result of the state Legislature’s enactment of amendments to Maine’s Medical Marijuana Law last summer. Among other things, the law, LD 1539, removes the cap on how much cannabis can be sold in medical marijuana dispensaries and allows registered marijuana caregivers to open up storefronts to serve their patients who are in the medical marijuana program.
The law also specifically gives municipalities the right to regulate such marijuana facilities, but the town’s existing ordinances do not provide an adequate mechanism to regulate and control the location and operation of them.
Residents of Houlton already voted in November 2017 to prohibit the sale and growth of recreational marijuana in town. But that vote does not affect medical marijuana growers or dispensaries.
Councilors debated the merits of giving up local control over the retail establishments. There were several questions that councilors said they needed answers about that weren’t available during the meeting, especially regarding how much authority the town would have when crafting and enforcing ordinances.
Tortello said that the planning board wanted to focus on what to do about new establishments.
“There are a lot of folks in town who have made substantial investments in medical marijuana,” she said. “I am sure customers want to know how we are going to move forward.”
Several councilors said they thought the decision would likely go to voters via referendum.
Councilor William McCluskey, who operates a medical marijuana grow operation in Houlton, said his position was always to regulate and enforce locally. He had a tense exchange with Councilor Hal Britton, who said he would never vote to support laws legalizing marijuana due to the damage the drug inflicts on people and families.
McCluskey argued that alcohol “ruined more lives” than marijuana.
“We are talking about marijuana,” Britton told him. “And you’re a supporter. And I am not.”
“Well hallelujah,” McCluskey said. “Thank God we live in America.”
This story was originally published in The County.