City council recommends marijuana moratorium

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WESTBROOK – Since voters approved the idea of retail marijuana sales, cultivation and manufacturing back in November 2016, many communities in Maine, Westbrook included, have passed moratoriums on the subject in order to allow state and local leaders to establish regulations.

While the Westbrook City Council opted to extend the moratorium another 180 days at its meeting Monday, March 26, the local regulations are just about to be unveiled at the planning board level.

“The city council has provided staff with the recommendation they are looking for an outright prohibition of the uses stated in the state language,” City Planner Jennie Fransceshi said.

At its next meeting Tuesday, April 3, the Westbrook Planning Board will be discussing an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would prohibit retail establishments, social clubs where the drug could be consumed, cultivation facilities, harvesting operations and manufacturing facilities anywhere in the city.

Chris O’Neill, an attorney for Green Harbor Technologies, said his client is looking closely at how the process plays out in Westbrook. Green Harbor Technologies, which has been operating a medicinal marijuana facility on Saco Street for the last five years, may be looking to get into the retail marijuana sector.

“The experience in other states has been pretty consistent in that once adult recreational use is legalized, the medical market wanes and we fully expect that the be the case in Maine,” O’Neill said. “For numerous reasons a transition into the recreational marketplace makes good business sense.”

O’Neill said his client helped South Portland officials draft adult use marijuana regulations and would be happy to do the same in Westbrook, but fears the council has already made a “policy decision” to prohibit adult-use marijuana businesses from Westbrook.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said city councilors have not taken an official stance on the topic at a council meeting, but did discuss the potential of local regulations at a committee of the whole workshop Jan. 8. At that workshop, Franceshi said the planning board felt that if adult use marijuana dispensaries are allowed in Westbrook, they should only be located in the Commercial Gateway zone and grow facilities be regulated to the industrial zone only.

Councilors saw the situation a little bit differently, indicating to city staff that they felt adult use retail marijuana establishments should not be allowed in the city.

At the polls in November 2016, voters across the state approved the legalization of recreational, or adult use marijuana, making it legal for individuals over the age of 21 to possess a small amount of marijuana (2.5 ounces) and grow a limited number of plants (six mature plants, 12 immature plants or an unlimited number of seedlings). The measure gave municipalities the power to regulate how marijuana could be sold, manufactured or cultivated within their borders. Many communities have, like Westbrook, imposed moratoriums, temporarily prohibiting recreational marijuana establishments from operating in town and choosing to wait until the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Legalization finishes its work setting up retail sales and taxation regulations before local regulations are put into place. The joint committee was supposed to have its work done by February, but that deadline was not met.

Westbrook City Council Vice President John O’Hara is eager for that work to be completed.

“We have a lot of businesses in Maine with a tremendous amount of money tied into this,” he said at the meeting.”The sooner (a recommendation) comes from Augusta, the better all municipalities in Maine are going to be.”

“We can’t maneuver or make gains until Augusta gives us some sort of direction, but they are doing the best they can making it difficult for us to nail this down,” he said.

O’Hara said businesses looking to get into the adult use marijuana industry “need an answer one way or another to move forward with their plans.”

O’Neill said the longer the process drags out in Westbrook, the more likely Green Harbor Technologies is to move out of Westbrook, possibly to a community like South Portland.

“From purely a business perspective, transitioning to retail has been incredibly difficult; site-location decisions are complicated, and require long-range planning, foresight and money,” O’Neill wrote in an email earlier this month to the American Journal. “The client doesn’t want to alter its business plan, break its lease, or move to South Portland, but it might be forced to.”

While Westbrook still has a moratorium in place, two communities in the area have taken definitive action on how adult use marijuana is handled. Last August, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council approved an ordinance that banned recreational marijuana sales, manufacturing, cultivation and social clubs. In South Portland, city councilors have opted to impose a series of land use restrictions outlining where adult-use marijuana businesses can be located and where such manufacturing, testing and retail sales would be allowed only by a special exception.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com

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