The leaders of Maine’s biggest city have long embraced a go-slow approach to marijuana, citing the warnings shared by mayors in other legalized states as justification for their caution even though frustrated Portland voters have been voting yes on all things cannabis here for the last seven years.

On Tuesday, Portland voters once again voted in favor of marijuana reform, this time not on legalization itself, but on eliminating the section of the local marijuana ordinance that caps the number of marijuana retail licenses to 20 and shrinking the mandatory buffer between licensed marijuana retail stores from 250 feet to just 100.

The no-cap ballot question was approved by a 6-percentage-point margin, or a 20,918-18,458 vote count, according to city election results.

“No one should be surprised by this,” said David Boyer, a veteran cannabis advocate who led the referendum campaign. “Marijuana ballot questions did well all over the country last night, but we’ve been voting in favor of a fair and open cannabis market in Portland since 2013. It’s long past time for the city to get out of the way.”

Voters legalized recreational cannabis in four states on Tuesday, including Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, and legalized medical cannabis in two others, South Dakota and Mississippi, bringing the total number of adult-use states to 15 and the total number of legal medical states to 36.

Maine legalized adult-use cannabis in 2016, but didn’t allow retail sales until last month. City voters were instrumental in the 2016 legalization vote, with Portland’s 27,425 yes votes giving the statewide campaign the nudge it needed to eke out a 1-percentage-point margin of victory. Yet it is other towns, like South Portland, that are hosting Maine’s first retail stores.

Boyer said the Council’s go-slow approach flies in the face of repeated public support for marijuana – “proof of a real disconnect.”

Portland has spent two years crafting individualized marijuana zoning and licensing ordinances. While other towns held up-or-down votes on whether to allow marijuana businesses, Portland decided to cap the number of local retail stores at 20 and use a complicated scoring matrix to pick which of the dozens of applicants would secure a lucrative store license.

Marijuana advocates fought back. Some, like Boyer, believe government has no right to pick winners and loser, and that it should be the market, and consumers, who decides which stores will survive. Some business interests criticized the scoring matrix, claiming it was stacked against them, or even unconstitutional.

A judge seemed to agree with the constitutionality complaint lodged by Wellness Connection of Maine, an out-of-state company opposed to the part of the scoring matrix that favors Mainers. Last month, the City Council voted to toss its matrix and approve all 36 first-round retail applicants. The cap prohibited new applicants until the total number of stores dipped back below 20.

By that time, however, Boyer had already mounted a petition drive to eliminate the cap.

When asked about the significance of the referendum win, Boyer said Wednesday he considered it a victory for consumers, and also for local medical marijuana patients. Unlike other cities, which chose to adopt ordinances for recreational marijuana only, Portland’s cap applied to both medical and adult-use stores. Of the 36 eligible applicants, only four served patients.

Under state law, medical marijuana stores can sell cannabis to state certified patients under the age of 21. Medical cannabis is also cheaper, in part because the products are taxed at a lower rate of 5.5 percent or 8 percent compared to the effective 20 percent tax rate applied to adult-use marijuana.

It is too early to understand exactly what impact the no-cap referendum win will have on the first round of eligible applicants or when the city might start accepting new applications, according to city officials. City attorneys spent the day after the election analyzing the impact of all five successful referendum questions, according to Mayor Kate Snyder.

“It is important that City staff have the time and opportunity to conduct further analysis on the range of impacts of all five questions now that they have voter approval,” Snyder said in a prepared statement. “I’ll be looking to help build the Council process so that we can understand specifics and near term impacts.”

In the days leading up to the referendum, city staff had wondered if the specific inclusion of a smaller store buffer in the referendum language might mean that some of the 36 applicants already approved to proceed with licensing by the City Council might lose their standing because they are located within 100 feet of another approved shop.

There are five so-called hotspots, most of them in the Old Port, where first-round applicants wanted to open a store within 250 foot of another, city officials say. While no one has actually measured the distances with tape yet, some of those clusters may include approved first-round applicants located within 100 feet of one another, city officials say.

As author of the ballot question, Boyer doesn’t think the referendum wording disqualifies any already approved applicants.

That possibility frustrates John Kriess, who last month won Council approval to seek a city license for his store, Portland Greenhouse, on Spring Street, even though it is on the same corner as another eligible applicant, The Stage. If the city decides to enforce the 100-foot buffer, Kriess could once again be fighting for a license.

“Basically, I’ve jumped through the hoops for the points matrix system in Portland, which has been personally very costly, and now the target has moved once again!” Kriess said by email. “A local existing business owner should not be forced to leave over a distance technicality previously accepted and voted on by the city council.”

He is concerned that lifting the 20-store cap to allow in the entire first round of applicants may hurt Portland, a relatively small city, even though it benefited him personally. Despite that worry, however, he believes the council did its due diligence before making that decision, and that all eligible applicants met the city’s high standards.

Kriess believes his business can still thrive, even if it faces more competition now, including a rival located just two doors away.


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