PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In a county that has experienced population decline, loss of business and brain drain, many see recreational marijuana as a potential avenue for economic growth. Yet, in this conservative and rural section of Maine, others spot a risk to the Aroostook County way of life.
As recreational marijuana sales begin on Friday in Maine, more than 50 municipalities across the state have adopted ordinances permitting recreational businesses to open in their communities. But out of the 65 cities, towns and plantations in The County, only two have opted in: Presque Isle and Grand Isle.
Other municipalities are considering such ordinances, from larger towns like Mapleton with about 1,800 residents, to smaller communities such as Wallagrass with a population of about 500. Some seem to be only waiting for an inquiry from a potential marijuana business before beginning the ordinance process.
Yet, a countervailing force remains: many County residents say marijuana businesses could cause unnecessary issues, especially increased criminal activity. Opponents, who tend to be older, reference high substance use disorder rates in The County — which are among the highest in the state. Addiction to methamphetamine and other substances is among the most significant issues social workers and police face in the region.
Perhaps aware of the stigma that remains toward cannabis — which is illegal under federal law — municipal officials who support recreational businesses focus on the economic opportunity rather than the substance itself.
In January, Presque Isle — Aroostook County’s largest city and economic hub — led the way when it approved the sale and manufacturing of recreational marijuana. While some city officials expected the issue to be controversial, there was little public opposition at the time.
The ordinance spurred new activity in the city’s cannabis industry: Three medical marijuana retail shops opened on Presque Isle’s Main Street in the months after its passage. The owner of one of those businesses — Full Bloom Cannabis — said he was interested in beginning recreational sales as soon as possible.
Presque Isle City Council Chairperson Kevin Freeman summed up the attitude of many in the city when he and the council approved the second of those shops in July: despite the salacious subject matter, nobody frowns at a new store in town.
“I’m looking forward to seeing these businesses, or any other businesses, open in Presque Isle,” Freeman had said at the time.
The St. John Valley town of Grand Isle is the only other Aroostook municipality to allow recreational marijuana businesses. Town clerk Debbie Gendreau said the ordinance was adopted relatively uncontroversially, with many residents excited for the prospect of new business coming to the town.
Grand Isle has multiple medical cannabis outlets, and one — a Full Bloom Cannabis store with the same owner as the Presque Isle location — is far along in the process of achieving a recreational license.
Gendreau said most residents differentiate cannabis from the harder drugs that have affected Aroostook County.
“We have many different active organizations and residents that are looking forward to new businesses, new tax money, new residents,” Gendreau said. “We feel this will be very beneficial in a great variety of ways.
While times are changing, not all communities feel the same as Grand Isle and Presque Isle. Several aren’t even contemplating changing, citing issues in The County with substance use disorder, as well as moral qualms.
Westfield Board of Selectmen Chairperson Clinton Watson said that although someone had recently approached the town about opening a marijuana business, there was a consensus among residents that they didn’t want marijuana companies in their town.
Being a smaller municipality, Westfield does not have its own police force, and Watson said residents would need to deal with “any problems” caused by the drug until law enforcement arrived.
“We already got enough problems with drug use in the area,” Watson said.
Caribou, Aroostook County’s second largest city, allows medical marijuana dispensaries, but not medical retail shops — a distinction that has blurred as the state no longer places many regulations on dispensaries, such as requiring them to operate as nonprofits.
Caribou City Manager Dennis Marker said that The County’s problems with hard drugs loomed heavy in the city’s outlook as it contemplated allowing recreational marijuana sales.
“We recognize the medically beneficial properties of marijuana,” Marker said. “We also know that casual, recreational use of marijuana can lead to introduction and experimentation with more addiction-forming and deleterious substances that negatively impact individuals, families and the community.”
Sandra Fournier, town manager of Mapleton, Castle Hill and Chapman, said that The County’s drug problem was one of many factors officials in her towns had to consider before moving forward with a marijuana ordinance.
“Obviously, we have been hit pretty hard with the drug epidemic,” Fournier said. “So, of course, that weighs on [town officials’] minds.”
In a region where church is an important part of people’s lives, religion may also influence perspectives. Mars Hill Town Manager David Cyr said that although residents recognized the drug use issues, their opposition to marijuana primarily came from their religious views.
As recreational stores open across Maine — generating what many expect to be untold millions of dollars in sales — it remains to be seen whether such squeamishness about the drug in Aroostook County will continue.
Ashland Town Manager Cyr Martin, whose town does not have a marijuana ordinance, said residents’ opinions on the issue were mixed, but he said he believed Ashland’s town council would allow a cannabis business to open if it received a proposal.
“[The town council does] realize that times are changing,” Martin said. “And that there is an income with tax money by allowing marijuana growing and marijuana retail shops.”