Recently adopted marijuana regulations in Maine’s biggest city have come under fire again.

A group of marijuana advocates in Portland filed a petition Friday that seeks to remove the 20-store cap on the number of marijuana retail shops allowed under the local marijuana ordinance approved this spring. The group wants to put the question to a referendum vote in November.

“We want a fair and open marijuana market,” said organizer David Boyer, former head of Maine’s chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project. “A cap helps out-of-state corporate interests, hurts local entrepreneurs and drives up consumer prices. Portland should treat marijuana shops like breweries. Some might fail, but all have the right to try.”

The petition also seeks to shrink the minimum buffer between marijuana shops from 250 feet to 100 feet.

The group collected 2,482 signatures on its petitions and submitted them to Portland City Hall on Friday for certification, Boyer said. The group needs the support of 1,500 confirmed city voters to force the City Council to consider adopting the proposed changes. If the council doesn’t want to do it, the question would be put to voters on the November ballot.

This petition drive marks the second challenge to Portland’s cannabis rules. The other is a lawsuit filed by the state’s biggest marijuana company, Wellness Connection of Maine, contesting the city’s decision to award preference points to Maine residents when deciding who should get one of Portland’s coveted retail marijuana store licenses.

Wellness Connection lawyers argued the local preference discriminates against companies such as itself that have proven track records in Maine but are owned, funded or managed by out-of-state residents or companies. Such economic discrimination is unconstitutional, they argue. It also hurts small Maine companies in need of outside investment.

Wellness Connection is owned by Acreage Holdings of New York, one of the largest U.S. cannabis companies, which is merging with an even larger Canadian marijuana company, Canopy Growth. Earlier this month, Acreage Holdings was fined by the Massachusetts Cannabis Commission for using complex management deals to violate its statewide license cap.

The Portland City Council decided to adopt a 20-store cap early on during the yearlong road to its May adoption of local cannabis rules. Councilors see the cap as a way for Portland to enter the marijuana market in a slow, controlled manner and lower the risk of flooding the new market with more suppliers than needed. A market failure would hurt everyone, they argued.

The city created a score sheet to decide who would get a retail license, giving preference to Mainers, the disadvantaged, business owners, medical cannabis caregivers, those with $150,000 in the bank, and companies that pay a living wage or donate 1 percent of profits to the city for drug prevention. The 20 highest-scoring applicants would nab a shop license.

It is not capping the number of marijuana testing labs, cultivation facilities and manufacturing plants, although their numbers are somewhat limited by the city’s cannabis zoning regulations, which limit where marijuana facilities can locate. But the ordinance does not differentiate between recreational and medical marijuana facilities.

City voters approved legalization by a 2-to-1 margin in the 2016 statewide referendum. In 2013, Portland became the first city on the East Coast to legalize recreational marijuana use as voters overwhelmingly passed an ordinance allowing adults to possess small amounts of the drug, a referendum kicked off by another Boyer petition drive.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999. Maine had expected to allow adult-use sales to begin in July, almost four years after legalization, but put the launch on indefinite hold while waiting for local approval of marijuana testing labs and coming up with a plan to manage the long lines of the first public adult-use store openings during the coronavirus pandemic.

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