For nearly a year, the Old Orchard Beach Town Council waited to debate whether to allow cannabis businesses in the popular tourist destination until state lawmakers put in place rules and licensing for the recreational marijuana market.

“When that didn’t happen, it prompted the Town Council to take a step in one direction or another,” said Town Manager Larry Mead.

The Town Council this month unanimously approved a retail marijuana prohibition, joining more than a dozen communities in southern Maine that have said no to pot businesses. Faced with uncertainty about what rules state officials will set up for the recreational marijuana market, other communities are extending moratoriums or waiting to discuss local zoning until there is more clarity about the future of the industry in Maine.

Lurking in the background is the discomfort some communities have embracing commerce based on what has long been an illegal drug, and is still regarded as such by the federal government. Several municipal officials said they fear they won’t have the resources to manage pot businesses, including code officers and law enforcement.

During a public hearing on the marijuana prohibition ordinance, Jerome Begert, who has served on multiple town committees, said Old Orchard Beach can’t afford to allow marijuana businesses in town under the rules being considered by the Legislature. “We will never get enough money from the state to pay for extra police officers, training for roadside tests for marijuana-intoxicated drivers,” he said.

But Peter Mourmouras, a local tax accountant, said at the same meeting that many of his clients work in the marijuana industry and are eager to become full members of the “legitimate” business community. He encouraged councilors to take a more moderate approach with a moratorium and said a prohibition will not stop people from using marijuana in Old Orchard Beach.

“Does the town want to control marijuana use in the town and does the town want to share in the revenue that is produced by the businesses?” Mourmouras said. “Who benefits from prohibition? Right now there is a black market.”

MANY MUNICIPALITIES JUST SAYING NO

A statewide moratorium on retail sales approved last January, which also made no provisions for sales and excise tax collections, will expire Feb. 1. There is no way to obtain a license to sell marijuana because lawmakers failed to put that regulatory structure in place.

Although a bill passed that would have provided regulatory oversight for a legal adult-use marijuana market in Maine, it was scuttled by Gov. Paul LePage’s veto. The Legislature is now taking up the matter again, including a bill that has committee support to extend the state moratorium until April 18.

Mead said he was disappointed the committee’s bill didn’t survive the governor’s veto.

“It really just kicked the can down the road and we don’t know how far that road is yet,” Mead said. “I think the uncertainty is problematic and it encourages black market approaches to this issue. That’s not really what anybody wants.”

Dozens of communities have passed temporary moratoriums banning marijuana businesses while state officials work on the issue in Augusta. In southern Maine, at least 19 communities have enacted temporary or permanent bans on all recreational marijuana businesses. Central Maine towns and cities, including Waterville, Hallowell and Augusta, also have enacted temporary or permanent bans on retail marijuana.

Lebanon and York were the first towns in southern Maine to approve prohibitions, followed within months by a slew of others, including Kittery, Wells, Ogunquit and Buxton. A half-dozen towns in Greater Portland, including Cape Elizabeth, Freeport and Gray, have enacted prohibitions. The Standish Town Council on Jan. 9 approved a ban on all retail marijuana businesses.

Westbrook was among a handful of communities that enacted a moratorium on retail marijuana even before voters approved Question 1 in November 2016. At the time, the majority of councilors expressed interest in banning from Westbrook any facilities for selling, growing, testing or using recreational marijuana. The moratorium, which was extended once, expires in March.

On Jan. 8, the Westbrook City Council held a workshop to discuss the future of recreational marijuana in the city and provide guidance to the administration about whether or not to enact zoning for cannabis businesses. The majority of councilors at the meeting told staff they are not interested in allowing the businesses, including stores, cultivation and testing facilities and social clubs, said council president Brendan Rielly.

Rielly said one of the main concerns from councilors is the cost to regulate and oversee marijuana businesses in the city, especially when the police, planning and code enforcement offices are already stretched thin.

“This would require a great investment of time and money,” he said. “We don’t want to place that kind of bet with the taxpayers’ money, particularly when we don’t know what’s coming from the state and federal level.”

The Biddeford City Council on Jan. 16 unanimously approved a six-month moratorium on marijuana businesses while the Legislature works on the final bill. The council first approved a 180-day moratorium in December 2016, but hadn’t spent time discussing the issue since then because of the uncertainty around state rules.

“Anything we do at this point is just highly speculative until we know what the Legislature will do,” City Manager Jim Bennett said. “Once we know what the rules of the state will be, we can have a real deliberative discussion about what that means for the community and we should do about that.”

Bennett, who is a member of the Maine Municipal Association executive and legislative policy committees, said municipal officials have been closely watching the issue. The municipal association recommended towns enact a moratorium or prohibition until the Legislature finishes working on the issue.

“(Town officials) want to be able to take action on what they believe to be in the best interest of the community, but we just don’t know what the rules are,” Bennett said.

TAXES AND ENFORCEMENT

Not all communities have put off discussions about local marijuana ordinances.

Days after LePage vetoed the adult-use cannabis bill, the South Portland City Council unanimously approved zoning and licensing regulations that made the city among the first in Maine to welcome marijuana businesses.

City officials began working on local regulations shortly after the 2016 referendum, ultimately crafting ordinances that allow and control marijuana growing, testing, processing and retail operations in the city’s commercial and industrial districts.

The local regulations prohibit marijuana social clubs and don’t address marijuana cultivation as a home occupation – two businesses that some councilors wanted to allow. The council agreed to set those issues aside and revisit them in six months.

David Boyer, director of the Maine chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project, said he believes how many towns address recreational marijuana will depend on the final rules – and especially the tax structure – approved by the Legislature.

“The towns feel like they have to do most of the enforcement and regulation of the new law, so they feel they should be compensated for that through a portion of the tax revenue brought in at the state level,” he said.

Republicans largely opposed having a portion of marijuana sales tax revenue earmarked for cities and towns that host retail marijuana stores. Many Republicans see that as a form of local-option sales tax that might encourage some towns to recruit marijuana sellers, or lead to “marijuana deserts” in some areas, where legal marijuana would not be available and black markets would flourish, Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, a member of the committee that drafted the adult-use bill, said last month.

Despite the lingering uncertainty, Boyer said he believes a proactive approach like the one taken in South Portland “makes the most sense.”

“We think towns should want marijuana to be sold behind a counter because it’s going to be sold either way,” he said. “Even if they don’t get all the tax revenue they want at the local level, it still makes sense to regulate marijuana rather than leave it to the black market.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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Twitter: grahamgillian

This story was updated at 11:30 Jan. 22 to change the date of the moratorium extension. The correct date is April 18.