Maine’s biggest city won’t even vote on its marijuana regulations until at least March – the same month that state officials are predicting Maine will record its first recreational sales.

It’s too early to say where those first Maine sales will occur, but it’s safe to say they won’t be in Portland.

On Tuesday, the leaders of the city’s health and human services and economic development committees said they would probably need to meet two more times before they could even send proposed marijuana rules to the City Council for a possible vote, most likely sometime in March.

Committee members acknowledged some people have been waiting for years to participate in the green rush, but continually emphasized the need to take a conservative approach when it comes to marijuana. “I’m fine with staring out a little bit slow,” Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said.

New Councilor Tae Chong, a former school board member and Catholic Charities Maine official, said he supported adult-use marijuana, but urged caution. “I want to remind people this is a drug,” Chong said. “This is a public safety issue. We keep talking about this like we’re selling cotton T-shirts.”

Two dozen other Maine municipalities have adopted regulations to allow marijuana businesses to open within their borders. Under Maine state law, an adult-use marijuana business must have both local and state approval before it can open.

Portland has traditionally been a big supporter of recreational use. In the 2016 legalization referendum, city voters approved adult use 27,425 to 14,063. Without that large margin of success, legalization in Maine would have failed. Statewide, it passed by the narrowest of margins, 51 percent to 49 percent.

After two hours of debate, the group decided to stand by the city staff’s plan to limit the number of retail stores in Maine’s largest city to no more than 20, which would be awarded in licensing rounds organized by the city manager. Cultivation and manufacturing licenses will not be capped.

Staff had argued that allowing any more than that would flood the market, drive down marijuana prices and make stores more likely to fail, which would not be good for the city or the industry. Critics said the market, and local marijuana consumers, should decide how many stores survive.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. had leaned toward licensing any qualified retail applicant and letting the market decide how many stores Portland could support, but on Tuesday, he said that city staff’s arguments in favor of a cap had persuaded him to change his mind.

Thibodeau noted other cities that have licensed retail stores have since come to regret the decision to let so many stores open. Councilor Justin Costa said he wanted to stick with the 20-store cap for now to see how it works out, noting that it would be easier to award more in the future than take any back.

“We’re all flying a bit blind here,” Costa said.

Implementation of a cap means Portland would have to decide who gets a retail license if the number of applicants exceeds the number available in any one round. Staff proposed using a weighted points system that favors certain applicants, but the group put off a detailed discussion of its merits until the next meeting.

The city staff scoring matrix would give preference points to the following categories of retail applicants:

• Women-, veteran- or immigrant-owned businesses.

• Maine residents of at least five years.

• Applicants who have run a successful licensed marijuana store in Maine or another state.

• Someone who has run a successful non-marijuana business in Maine for at last five years.

• Those who have owned or leased the proposed shop location for at least two years.

• Retail locations at least 1,500 feet from a school.

• Those who contribute 1 percent of net profits to the city for youth or addiction programs.

• Store owners who would sell only marijuana-related products.

• Applicants with at least $150,000 in liquid assets.

Critics say the proposal favors applicants bankrolled by corporate, multistate marijuana operators and would squeeze out everyday Mainers trying to break into the new industry. Others say the city shouldn’t cap licenses at all, but should let the market – and the consumer – decide who survives.

Some of these issues came up when committee members debated the merits of transferring a marijuana license. What’s the point in using a scoring system if someone who secures a license can simply sell it off to someone else who might not score as well under the system, they argued.

The original staff proposal would have required a business owner to surrender their license if they sold off equity to raise capital. They could apply for a new license, but in the case of a retail store, they might have to wait until the next round of licenses were awarded to even be considered.

Councilors agreed they didn’t want to create a secondary market for retail marijuana licenses, but urged staff to rewrite the rules to allow for the transfer of up to 25 percent of ownership to help local mom-and-pop operations to drum up capital in case of an emergency.

The staff proposal would establish five licensing categories, including three sizes of grows, two tiers of manufacturing and two types of retail stores: medical and recreational use. License fees range from $250 for a small medical marijuana provider to $10,000 for an adult-use retail store.

Portland’s proposed adult-use retail license fee is seven times costlier than South Portland’s $1,400 fee.

Officials claim the $319,000 Portland expects to earn from licensing growers, manufacturers, and retail shops is needed to pay for an extra health inspector, licensing assistant, code enforcement officer and half the salary of a police sergeant needed to regulate the new industry.

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