PORTLAND – Portland may soon become one of dozens of Maine communities to temporarily ban medical marijuana dispensaries slated to open around the state later this year.

But when it comes to getting marijuana into the hands of suffering patients, advocates say Maine’s largest city is the last place where local officials should stand in the way.

“Portland is really a service center. It’s a place where people have access to public transportation in a state with very little public transportation,” said Alysia Melnick, an attorney with the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “That makes it even more important that Portland not put up barriers to access.”

Portland’s City Council plans to hold a public hearing on June 21 before deciding whether to adopt a six-month moratorium. It’s already clear the high stakes of Portland’s decision will bring out strong opposition.

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services plans to select the operators of the state’s first eight dispensaries by July 9. The not-for-profit suppliers could open shop within weeks of getting a license, depending partly on how quickly they could grow and process the drug and set up the security and tracking systems required by the state. Each dispensary will be in a different region, and there will be one each in York County and Cumberland County.

Portland’s ban would provide time to write new city rules for operating and siting a dispensary, just as other communities have done, according to the city attorney. “There’s all sorts of control mechanisms that might be appropriate,” said Gary Wood.

While Portland officials have not yet discussed such rules, other communities have created zoning guidelines and setbacks from schools, among other things.

Wood said he prepared the moratorium language so councilors could consider the need for rules, not because anyone wants to keep medical marijuana out of the city. Officials have already heard from potential dispensary operators and others worried about the effects of the ban, however

“City staff is going to meet with some proponents to make sure the moratorium doesn’t unintentionally interfere with their ability to apply for the dispensary license,” Wood said. “I am aware and the council is aware, too, of the very legitimate design and purpose of the law” to help ill and disabled patients. “We’re going to keep their best interests and concerns right at the forefront of the discussion.”

The moratorium would probably not last the full six months because rules and siting standards could be completed sooner, according to Wood. He said he waited longer than other communities to draft the moratorium because he first wanted to see the state’s proposed rules, which were made public last month.

State rules for dispensaries already include a 500-foot setback from schools, security standards and criminal background checks, among other things. Dispensaries can grow the marijuana on site or at separate locations under similar rules.

It makes perfect sense for Portland and other communities to consider their own additional operating and siting standards, according to medical marijuana advocates. But, they said, there’s no need to delay the opening of what will likely be the state’s largest dispensary.

“We don’t oppose the idea that businesses might fall under specific zoning provisions. But we don’t think a six-month moratorium is the way to go about doing that,” Melnick said. “For us, it’s about access and the ability to get dispensaries up and running. We believe that the proposed moratorium endangers patient health.”

Brendan McGann of South Portland is director of the Maine Wellness Group, which hopes to operate a dispensary in Portland. The group’s application will include several alternative sites, in part because of the uncertainty about future guidelines in the city.

But, McGann said, it is really the patients who will suffer if Portland delays the opening of a dispensary here. “It isn’t a moratorium on dispensaries. It’s a moratorium on health care for sick people,” he said.

As a care provider under Maine’s established laws, McGann already grows marijuana for as many as five patients and said he has seen it save lives, such as by making it possible for MS or cancer patients to eat food and maintain their strength.

Some would-be dispensary operators see Portland as “the golden goose” of Maine’s medical marijuana program because of the potential market here, McGann said. Having helped patients with chronic pain or with terminal illnesses, he said, he sees a city-based dispensary as the best way to help tens of thousands of disabled and ill Mainers.

“This is the place it should be because that’s where the people who need the help are.”

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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