AUBURN — The City Council spent Monday envisioning Auburn’s future, and what role marijuana will have in its economy.

As the state Legislature remains in slow discussions on a way to implement a regulatory system for retail marijuana, Auburn will create a council work group to draft potential zoning ordinances.

It’s the first such move by Auburn officials to take a deeper look at marijuana rules. The previous council took a hands-off approach to marijuana regulations, which has encouraged an increase in medical marijuana growing operations and dispensaries in Auburn.

City staff called the workshop to receive guidance from the City Council about what direction Auburn should go. Many municipalities have passed moratoriums on recreational pot until the final state legislation comes forward, but Auburn has not.

After the initial referendum in 2016 to legalize retail marijuana, the state has yet to finalize a law or rules to implement a system that would allow for recreational cultivation, sales or processing of marijuana.

Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill in November, and the initial Feb. 1 deadline for the system has now passed.

Eric Cousens, deputy director of economic and community development, said it will be difficult to draft any local regulations regarding retail marijuana until after the state does.

However, he said, Auburn has seen “a lot of activity” in the medical marijuana industry. He said that while many of the large-scale industrial grow operations have not been an issue, city staff is seeing more issues at small-scale operations in multifamily housing.

That’s raised concerns with Auburn police Lt. Timothy Cougle.

He said the city has run into problems with local growers bending the rules already in place in the city, causing “significant safety concerns.”

According to Cougle, there are 29 grow operations in commercial space in the city. He said “a lot of people are setting up shop here, and are invested here,” getting in on the ground level and ready for when retail stores are allowed.

Auburn is also home to one of eight state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine. Cougle said further rules for the medical industry were also due Feb. 1, but were put on hold.

“The state really has to step up, and clean up that bill,” he said, adding that there are aspects of regulation the city can do now and perhaps amend down the line.

The City Council voted 6-1 to support forming a work group.

Councilor Andrew Titus said he’d like to have an ordinance that encompasses medical and retail. He believes the city should designate zones where grow operations, or future retail operations, are allowed, and “not just wait for the state.”

“We need to have a complete guideline,” he said.

Cousens said he drafted some zoning standards during the previous administration, but was told by officials that Auburn should “remain open.” He said he was looking for direction so that when people contact the city, he can “send clear messages to people looking for recreational opportunities.”

Councilor Leroy Walker, who voted against creating a work group, said saying no to recreational marijuana would be like saying no to a new craft brewery in Auburn.

“It’s going to be all around us anyway, we lose out if we don’t take advantage,” he said.

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