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KITTERY, Maine — It wasn’t a promising night for the future of retail marijuana in town.
At Monday’s Town Council and Planning Board workshop on the matter, Planning Board member Drew Fitch remarked, “I’d hate to see Kittery looking like Seabrook, where instead of fireworks, we have pot outlets.”
Mark Alesse, also on the Planning Board, added, “I’ve smoked it, I know how fun it is … I just don’t see why we need to have it in our town. What are the upsides of having it here? I don’t know any.”
The joint meeting was held to chart the future course for the town in navigating retail marijuana opportunities following a 55 percent non-binding ‘yes’ from voters in November, to see a limited number of operations in the town’s commercial districts. After a robust conversation surmounting around legislative changes, possible added expenses for the town, and increased law enforcement, a clear message was sent to Town Manager Kendra Amaral: Do nothing.
Amaral shared updates the state Legislature made this summer, including the requirement now for towns to “opt in” for retail marijuana, for which Kittery is currently “out.” Right now, the state tax rate is set at 10 percent on retail sales, and 10 percent on excise for business to business sales. Twelve percent of revenue raised will be used to fund an “Adult Use Marijuana Public Health and Safety Fund.”
At this time, no revenue goes to host municipalities, perhaps the biggest bone of contention for many, and for some, the only reason why a town would want to see retail operations. However, the Legislature is poised to consider new legislation that would distribute 25 percent of revenue, sales and excise tax, to the host community. It’s unknown the response that will get.
“There is not one state that has retail marijuana that has not recognized the host communities have huge financial obligations, so that’s where I am right now,” said Councilor Ken Lemont. “And I do not want to leap over the fence and go forward with this and have the Maine Legislature say, ‘We don’t need to give them any money, they’ve already gone and done it.’ I’m at a point right now where I’m not comfortable having the conversation and expecting the Town Council to opt in.”
Amaral said approximately six communities south of Augusta are “getting themselves in line” to have ordinances in place for when the state issues retail permits, which is expected in the first half of 2020. Neighboring town Eliot, she mentioned, is currently in those conversations.
“I think it would be premature to opt into something we don’t know what the final arrangement is,” Alesse said, while raising concerns about more impaired drivers traveling Kittery roads if marijuana was readily available for purchase in town.
Police Chief Robert Richter said the biggest issue needing remedy would likely be traffic, but based on watching what happened with Massachusetts’ first store openings, the frenzy died down after a few weeks.
“The news covered those like it was the biggest thing that happened in Massachusetts, and there were lines everywhere, they were busing people there from larger parking lots,” Richter said. “And then the next weekend there was no news about it and then the weekend after that, everybody forgot about it.”
Richter said he believed things would proceed as “regular business” after novelty wore off.
In response to Alesse’s concern about DUI drivers, he said most people don’t go to a liquor store and drink all of their purchase before hitting the road.
“Being a police officer for many years, I can see both sides of this coin,” said Councilor Charles Denault. “The fact of the matter is we have to look at what does it bring to Kittery, what does it put on the table. We have to look at the facts that are coming and not the conjecture that this may happen. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We can start checking with these other communities that are having these cannabis sales.”
Fitch said it appeared Gov. Janet Mills’ administration “has a different viewpoint on this whole thing than the previous one,” so they may take a more proactive approach.
“The money does matter and right now it’s pretty simple,” added Councilor Matt Brock. “We’re not getting anything.”
Amaral reminded the councilors and board members that no matter how the town decides to act on retail operations, marijuana will still be there.
“I agree that the financial support for the impact is going to be important, but the reality is marijuana is legal in Maine, and not allowing retail stores in Kittery does not mean there will not be marijuana in Kittery,” she said.
Councilor Jeffrey Thomson said the Town Council “should do absolutely nothing at this point. There’s far too many unknowns.”
A pro-retail marijuana resident, Gerry Burns, said he was disappointed with Monday night’s conversation, and thought the town had moved past certain “misinformation.”
“Besides retail vibrancy for a failing district up at the malls right now, plain and simple, it’s the will of the people,” Burns said. “Through two or three ways, we see that the will of the people is to have retail marijuana in town. At this point, the state is moving forward, there is a new administration that’s committed to getting a program up and going. I’ve been told that they’re going to move quicker than people think. To that point, I’m not sure why we’re shelving this at this point.”
He noted zoning ordinance changes necessary to allow retail marijuana would take “six-to-eight months,” and by that time, the state would likely be getting ready to issue its first permits.