Every qualified applicant who has already applied for a marijuana retail store license in Maine’s biggest city will probably get one.

On Monday, the Portland City Council voted 5-3 in favor of licensing almost everyone who applied in the first round of city licensing, so long as they meet the city’s general eligibility requirements. That means Portland could have as many as 34 cannabis retailers, more per capita than Denver, Colo., instead of the 20 stores written into the city’s marijuana regulations.

The council also voted to relax its eligibility requirements to make it easier for applicants who have been more than a month late on a city fee or tax in the last five years or fell behind on a city tax or fee during the COVID-19 pandemic to qualify to seek retail licensing.

“People make mistakes and you move on,” said Mayor Kate Snyder.

The council decided to ease its 20-store cap limit right now so it wouldn’t have to decide how to amend its complex scoring matrix, which was intended to award the city’s limited number of retail licenses to the most qualified candidates, after a judge sided with an out-of-state applicant that claimed the matrix was unconstitutional.

The applicant, Wellness Connection of Maine, has been operating in Portland since 2011 but is owned by an out-of-state investor controlled by a multinational giant, Acreage Holdings. Wellness already runs four of the state’s eight medical dispensaries, including its flagship on Congress Street, but wants to jump into the recreational side of the business now.

The council went into its Monday meeting considering three options: Eliminate the parts of the retail scoring matrix that favored state residents but leave the rest of the rubric intact, give every qualified applicant a retail license, or establish a lottery that would divvy up the 20 available retail licenses among the field of qualified applicants by chance.

Councilors were divided over their reasons for supporting the different options – some liked the idea of giving everybody a license because it might help the city avoid another lawsuit from a rejected applicant that would further slow the opening of a retail market in Portland, while others said awarding licenses by chance through a lottery would be the best way to fend off lawsuits.

Councilor Tae Chong lamented that suspending the cap during the first round would contradict the advice that city staff received during a visit to Denver, Colorado, the biggest city in the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. Denver officials warned Maine that it was better to go slow, and issue fewer licenses than needed, than to go to fast and flood the city with retailers.

But Councilor Jill Duson said she liked the idea of giving everybody in the first round a license because it would guarantee that most of the stores that open in Portland would be using a business plan based on the city’s retail scoring matrix, even if one part of it was eliminated due to the Wellness Connection lawsuit.

“They put on the lipstick we told them to,” Duson quipped.

Both the state and its biggest city tried to give Mainers a boost in the race to cash in on the state’s lucrative cannabis industry. But the industry’s biggest player, Wellness Connection of Maine, has twice gone to court in an attempt to get a judge to toss the locals-only language from the state’s law and the city’s retail license scoring system.

In both cases, the governments being sued agreed to abandon the locals licensing preferences if Wellness would drop the lawsuits.

The city received 43 initial retail store applications, but only three quarters were deemed eligible for consideration. The rest were thrown out for not having a conditional state license, being more than a month late on a local tax or fee over the last five years, an unresolved land-use violation or wanting to open a shop too close to a school or in the wrong zone.

The courts have struck down residency requirements on constitutional grounds before, but not in the marijuana industry, which still violates federal law. Other legal states such as Colorado and Oregon have abandoned resident-only licensing mandates for policy reasons, not legal ones. Alaska’s residency requirement, however, remains intact.

It is unclear how the council’s vote may impact the upcoming marijuana licensing referendum question, which, if passed, gets rid of the license cap altogether and shrinks the buffer between stores from 250 to 100 feet. Monday’s vote suspended the cap for the first round, but didn’t abolish it – the number of stores allowed will go back down to 20 as stores close or leave.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.