Maine municipalities embrace temporary moratoriums on pot-related businesses in an effort to adjust more gradually to change.

The Nov. 8 vote to legalize recreational marijuana in Maine has opened the door to the fastest-growing industry in the country and raised the prospect of cultivation warehouses in suburban industrial parks, cannabis shops on Main Streets and marijuana social clubs in quaint tourist towns.

But cities and towns around the state aren’t rolling out the green carpet.

Since Maine voted to legalize marijuana last month, nearly two dozen towns have discussed or implemented moratoriums to stop any marijuana-related businesses from setting up shop and to give themselves time to develop local regulations. And at least three towns are considering becoming “dry towns” that won’t allow retail marijuana facilities.

“Right now, this is the hottest topic we have,” says Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, which has fielded questions about marijuana from nearly 40 municipal officials.

The marijuana law, which passed by a margin of about 4,000 votes, includes provisions that the bill’s authors say are intended to allow strong local control. Towns can regulate the number, location and operation of retail marijuana stores, cultivation, manufacturing and testing facilities and social clubs, and can also impose a local licensing requirement. They can also become dry towns by implementing an outright ban on all marijuana business. Private marijuana possession and growing will still be allowed even in towns that ban retail businesses.

“We put those measures in place because local control is enshrined in the Maine Constitution and we believe that towns know what’s best for them,” said Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine and an author of the law.

While the majority of towns discussing the issue have implemented or are considering a moratorium, others are taking a wait-and-see approach as the state develops rules and licensing, or are working on local regulations without a temporary ban in place. Municipal leaders in several cities say they are confident they have plenty of time to sort out zoning issues while the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry spends the next nine months developing rules and licensing regulations for the program. State licenses aren’t expected to be issued until early 2018.

The Maine Municipal Association is advising municipalities to adopt 180-day moratoriums to prevent “unwanted developments” with new marijuana businesses until local regulations are approved, Conrad said. Towns will need that time to navigate a whole host of issues, from who will issue local licenses to how to regulate odor.

“What’s complicating it, of course, is how the ground is shifting all the time,” Conrad said. “There are a lot more questions than answers right now.”

McCarrier said he is not surprised so many towns are considering moratoriums, given the complexity of implementing the new law.

“Sometimes the word moratorium can seem scary or discouraging to people, but I don’t think it should be viewed that way,” he said. “The towns want to do things properly and that takes time.”

TOWNS CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE

The close vote on Question 1 at the state level was mirrored in many municipalities, where the vote was almost evenly split. Conrad said that can put town leaders in the tough position of navigating the issue without a clear mandate from voters.

“What’s happening at the local level is a reflection of how society feels about marijuana,” he said. “Our local government officials are sort of caught in the middle. They’re trying to manage a situation where citizens’ reactions can range from ‘It’s legal and I want to get it here’ to ‘I don’t want it in my town.’ That’s a tough situation.”

The Westbrook City Council was the first city in Maine to signal that it may ban marijuana stores and social clubs. Before the Nov. 8 vote, city councilors voted in favor of a 180-day moratorium on recreational marijuana facilities. A majority of councilors expressed interest in banning any facilities used for selling, growing, testing or using recreational marijuana.

On Election Day, Westbrook residents voted 5,502 to 4,313 in favor of legalizing marijuana.

Council President Brendan Rielly said councilors will consider that vote during their discussions and will seek more public input, but he believes the majority of councilors are still interested in pursuing a ban.

“It wasn’t an overwhelming vote and there was a lot of confusion about what was actually being voted on,” he said. “On the flip side of that, we had a vote on our local officials. Most of the local officials who were re-elected or elected had taken a position in favor of the moratorium.”

Rielly said the council, which includes two new members, will meet as soon as possible to figure out if the city will pursue a ban or develop local restrictions. He remains concerned about the impact of legal marijuana on the community, especially when it comes to the costs he believes the city will face if it allows pot shops to open.

“I have no interest in trying to wade into regulating it. There is a tremendous cost both in time and in money in trying to regulate (marijuana businesses),” Rielly said. “I know the proponents speak about it as an economic development tool, but I don’t think that’s accurate. It ignores the cost side of the register. We have to spend money to license, enforce, for police and to deal with legal challenges if at some point we deny a license or take one away.”

The legalization law includes a provision that residents could use to force a townwide vote if town councilors or selectmen implement a ban that is out of line with what residents want, McCarrier said.

“There are a lot of generational views on cannabis. You have people who might have a personal negative view of cannabis and might be out of touch with what the public wants in general,” he said. “We wanted to give the citizenry the tools necessary in case municipalities are banning cannabis facilities and citizens don’t feel that was right.”

In Somerset County, Skowhegan selectmen decided to pursue becoming a dry town after residents voted 2,152 to 1,897 against Question 1. The planning board will develop an ordinance to ban marijuana businesses in town that is expected to be voted on by residents at the Town Meeting in June.

Selectmen said during their Nov. 22 meeting that they were pursuing the ban because of public opinion and the difficulty of restricting marijuana businesses in town.

“We don’t have zoning, so we have limited abilities on restrictions,” said Town Manager Christine Almand.

If Skowhegan residents decide not to become a dry town, officials will ask them to implement a moratorium to allow town staff time to figure out how to handle marijuana businesses. Skowhegan has a local controlled-substance facility ordinance in place regulating methadone clinics and medical marijuana dispensaries, but Almand said it is unclear if the town can use the same ordinance to regulate recreational marijuana businesses.

In Oakland, town councilors are considering becoming a dry town rather than implementing a moratorium and local restrictions. Town Manager Gray Bowman told councilors last month that because the town’s comprehensive plan isn’t updated and the town doesn’t have zoning, it can’t enforce a moratorium. Town residents voted 1,914 to 1,620 against Question 1.

Cities and towns in Maine that have implemented 180-day moratoriums include Portland, Gray, Brewer, Bangor, Farmington and Wells. Others – including South Portland, Vassalboro, Richmond, Gardiner, Augusta, Windham, Raymond, Winslow and Clinton – are considering moratoriums or scheduling townwide votes to enact them.

The Freeport Town Council is expected to vote this month on a moratorium, which town planner Donna Larson says will give councilors “time to be thoughtful on how they want to handle” marijuana businesses.

“We want to make sure we give it the careful consideration it deserves without the pressure of having actual applications to review,” she said.

‘SPLIT DOWN THE MIDDLE’

The Rockland City Council held a community discussion last week about marijuana legalization, the first step in what Mayor Will Clayton sees as an important process to gauge “where the community wants to go with this.” On Nov. 8, 55 percent of residents voted in favor of legalizing marijuana.

“It’s still something that was fairly close,” Clayton said. “Rather than the council simply providing direction, we want the direction to come from everyone working collaboratively.”

The council consensus so far is to not “completely reject” marijuana businesses and to bring proposed regulations forward as soon as February, Clayton said. Councilors will meet for a workshop in January to consider how to proceed.

Last week, Rockland Main Street Inc. conducted an anonymous survey of people with connections to the city to gauge how they feel about marijuana businesses. The survey drew about 200 responses, 400 percent higher than any survey done by the organization in the past three years.

The survey shows that 45 percent of respondents oppose having a marijuana business in the downtown district, while 40 percent favor it. Fifteen percent are undecided. More people – about 50 percent – favor allowing a marijuana store anywhere in the city, but about 20 percent of people said they are unsure.

“We wanted to do something proactive once we learned an individual businessperson had expressed interest in opening a marijuana shop of some type in downtown Rockland,” said Gordon Page Sr., executive director of Rockland Main Street.

After reviewing the survey results, the organization’s board decided not to take a position on how the city should deal with marijuana businesses.

“Even on the board, there’s a split of people in favor and people not in favor,” Page said. “With the survey results, there was not a big consensus one way or the other.”

Clayton said the survey will be a valuable tool for councilors to consider during upcoming discussions, even if the results were “split down the middle.”

“With this particular topic, it gave us a good idea of what people are thinking,” he said. “When you’re talking about a drug that has been illegal for so long, there’s a stigma on it. It’s easier for people to open up when it’s anonymous.”

MOVING ON LOCAL ORDINANCES

Two York County cities are moving forward with developing local land-use ordinances and regulations without a moratorium in place. Despite already fielding inquiries from people interested in opening marijuana businesses, Sanford and Saco officials say they have plenty of time to develop local rules before the state starts issuing licenses.

Sanford City Manager Steve Buck said his staff and the City Council spent a year looking at how to zone and regulate retail medical marijuana businesses that had moved to town as the medical program grew in popularity. That process involved input from medical marijuana growers who helped city officials learn about how their cultivation businesses operate. Staff also looked to Colorado for guidance on how to deal with fire safety issues.

Throughout that entire process, Buck had his eye on the recreational marijuana bill.

“We did that (medical marijuana work) with the mindset that this act might pass,” he said. “A lot of communities, because they thought they couldn’t do anything with medical marijuana, want to take a pause and start that work. We’ve done our work.”

In January, the city’s zoning subcommittee will begin the rule-making process, with a primary focus on retail stores and social clubs, Buck said. He said the City Council could still decide to say no to those businesses, but so far councilors haven’t expressed interest in a ban.

“When we look at our vote counts for Question 1, we had 54 percent of our voters say yes and 46 percent say no,” Buck said. “The committee’s recognition is that, given that tally in our community, they likely won’t say no to sales and social clubs altogether.”

Like Sanford, Saco recently went through a long process of developing zoning for medical marijuana businesses. City councilors and staff will now turn their attention to doing the same for recreational businesses.

City Administrator Kevin Sutherland said the Saco City Council could impose a ban, but at this point councilors seem more interested in developing zoning and licensing requirements and allowing new businesses to open in the city.

“Considering that six of the seven wards voted in favor of it, I don’t think there’s an appetite among councilors to ban it,” he said.

Sutherland said he has worked closely with the Maine Municipal Association to gather information to pass along to city councilors. The planning staff will soon start working on those local regulations, which will go to the planning board and City Council for approval. Sutherland estimates that process could take three months and will likely include input from communities in states with legal marijuana.

“We don’t have to go it alone,” he said. “There are other communities across the country we can look to. We can call Colorado, Washington or Oregon and we will do that.”