Marijuana debates resume

BAR HARBOR — By taking no action to “opt in” under a new state law, the Town Council prohibited marijuana cultivation, retail stores, marijuana product manufacturing operations and testing facilities here on Tuesday.

This action followed the general consensus of councilors that the town should wait for a state framework. The plan is to move slowly in determining whether to allow any commercial marijuana facilities in the future.

The council voted 6-1 to take no action on local marijuana policies, with only Councilor Judie Noonan voting against the motion.

Under a new law passed by the Legislature in May, said town planner Janna Richards, the town would have to decide to add marijuana businesses as allowed commercial uses under the town’s land use ordinance.

Towns can enforce stricter regulations than those provided by the state law, such as limiting the number of establishments in each category or creating buffer zones around “sensitive uses.”

The new state law does not allow “marijuana social clubs,” which were included in previous drafts. It sets a 20 percent state tax rate on marijuana products. All of that tax revenue will go to the state.

Medical marijuana stores currently are allowed, but recreational marijuana stores are not. The state has not yet created a licensing system for recreational marijuana sales.

Richards said the town cannot prohibit recreational use. Any person 21 years old or older can possess 2-1/2 ounces of marijuana and have three mature plants. The new law reduced that number from the previous limit of six.

Respondents to questions on online platform Polco, Engagement Coordinator Nina St. Germain said, largely were in favor of the four types of establishments, but not all of the answers were from registered voters.

The Polco survey showed 280 respondents were 65 percent in favor of retail sales in Bar Harbor, 254 respondents were 67 percent in favor of commercial cultivation, 304 respondents were 68 percent in favor of commercial manufacturing, and 245 respondents 68 percent were in favor of testing facilities.

Among Bar Harbor voters, 50 percent were in favor of cultivation and product manufacturing. Retail stores and testing facilities received 57 and 52 percent support, respectively.

Age breakdowns showed people aged 18-39 and 60-69 were in favor of all types of establishments.

St. Germain also conducted a paper questionnaire as voters left the polls June 12. One hundred and ninety-five people responded to the survey.

Respondents also were in favor of allowing only one of each facility in town, but St. Germain said there was no option for zero allowed facilities on the survey, so those who wanted to vote “no” on allowing facilities probably voted for the most restrictive option, one facility.

The new law also prohibits retail locations within 1,000 feet of schools and day cares, but towns could create buffers around “sensitive uses” like parks, libraries and places of worship. Almost all of the Polco respondents were strongly in favor of the 1,000-foot buffers around schools and 500-foot buffers around parks and playgrounds. Respondents were split on buffers around libraries and places of worship.

These buffer zones, if implemented, likely would push any establishments away from downtown Bar Harbor. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Martha Searchfield, speaking as a resident, said she visited a marijuana retail store in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which she described as a town similar to Bar Harbor. She said the store was not in the downtown area but still was busy.

“They have no problems with not being in the downtown,” she said. “It’s actually easier because there were so many rules. It was nonstop in this store; [but] it was very controlled.”

Searchfield said the Chamber does not have an official stance on marijuana businesses. She said vacationers could be more apt to try marijuana because they are more relaxed and open to new experiences. That, she said, could create problems for law enforcement.

Police Chief Jim Willis said there has not been an uptick in marijuana-related incidents in Bar Harbor since the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016. He urged councilors to look at how Colorado proceeded with retail marijuana to help guide decision making.

“I don’t think anybody can predict [how it will affect the town,]” he said. “But I think you do have the opportunities to look at Colorado’s successes and failures.”

Councilor Matt Hochman said the police will deal with marijuana regardless of whether there are establishments in town, and the council should stay focused on how stores would fit into Bar Harbor’s retail market.

“I don’t want to get bogged down in the weeds,” he said. “My biggest concern is that we allow it in the proper areas and we don’t overallow.”

Councilor Joe Minutolo said retail marijuana could hurt Bar Harbor’s reputation as a resort location. Further, because the town is right next to Acadia National Park, federal land where marijuana is illegal, legalizing marijuana could strain relations between town the and the park.

“I don’t know about retail in Bar Harbor at this point … it’s a town that is family friendly,” he said, “I’m not saying anything against people that use marijuana, they can still get it and smoke it, we are not denying them that. I’m worried about what this possibly could do for our brand.”

Minutolo supported opting out of allowing marijuana businesses but suggested conducting forums to gauge public opinion when state rules are finalized.

“We freely sell a type of cigarette that kills people,” said Noonan, who cast the dissenting vote on the issue. “There’s some promise in looking at this. I think we have to tread carefully, but I’m certainly not ready to close the door on this.”

Janice Lowe, a resident and licensed drug counselor, cited studies at some universities that linked retail marijuana stores to higher property- and violent-crime rates in some cities. Her husband, Galen Lowe, said property values rise in areas with legal marijuana, and that could work against goals of have more affordable housing here.

Resident Rob Levin said in a May 25 email to Knight that marijuana stores should be allowed to operate in any zone where alcohol sales are allowed. He said the initial surge in stores will be followed by a leveling out in the market.

“The market will subsequently care of that problem, and what we will be left with will be the correct [number] of stores and the best ones at that,” he said. “Let the market determine what is best.”

Samuel Shepherd

Samuel Shepherd

Samuel Shepherd is a University of Maine graduate and a former Bar Harbor reporter for the Mount Desert Islander.
Samuel Shepherd

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