MOUNT DESERT — The special town meeting scheduled for Jan. 29 to vote on a proposed 180-day moratorium on the retail sale of recreational marijuana has been cancelled.
The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to call off the special town meeting after listening to residents at a public hearing on the question Tuesday night.
The selectmen had voted Jan. 2 to hold the special town meeting because the current statewide moratorium on retail marijuana sales expires Feb. 1. There appears to be support in the Legislature to extend that moratorium until May or June, but that has not yet occurred.
The selectmen proposed a local moratorium so that the town would have time to consider and put into place any local regulations that might be needed before facing the possibility of someone applying for a permit to open a marijuana store or social club.
Brian Henkel was among those at the public hearing who argued that a local moratorium was unnecessary, at least at this time.
He noted that the bill the Legislature is currently considering would require municipalities that wish to allow retail marijuana sales to opt in. That is, marijuana sales would not be permitted in a town unless the town voted to allow it. Henkel said that provision, if it remains in the pending legislation, would protect the town from having to permit recreational marijuana sales without having a local vote on it.
If and when the town does vote to enact a moratorium, it would be in effect for 180 days. The selectmen could later extend it for one additional 180-day period, but no longer.
Several residents pointed out that if a moratorium were enacted now, it would expire at the end of January next year at the latest. At that time, it would still be more than three months before the regular town meeting, at which time the town might want to vote on whether to allow recreational marijuana sales at all.
By waiting until this year’s regular town meeting for a moratorium vote, Henkel and others said, the selectmen could avoid the possibility of a three-month gap in protection for the town next year.
Otherwise, Henkel said, “You’re going to be in the same position next year, trying to figure out what you’re going to do. Then you’re really going to be in a gap before you get to the next town meeting.”
Caroline Pryor said turnout for a special town meeting was likely to be much smaller than for the regular town meeting, so there would be less chance of a true representation of the sentiments of town residents.
Henkel said there is little risk in waiting until the May town meeting to consider a moratorium.
“There’s no way legislation is going to get passed and implemented before the regular town meeting, and that has to happen for any retail sales operations to happen in the town anyway,” Henkel said. “So, I think you’re already covered.”
Several selectmen said that made sense.
“This is why we have public hearings,” board Chairman John Macauley said.
Following the hearing, the board voted to cancel the special town meeting, provided they could legally do so at this point.
Town Manager Durlin Lunt checked with the legal services department of the Maine Municipal Association on Wednesday and was told that the special town meeting could be cancelled.
Moratorium wording criticized
In addition to questioning the need for a local moratorium on retail marijuana sales at this time, several residents at Tuesday’s hearing objected to the length and wording of the proposed moratorium ordinance. The language, which is being used by other cities and towns, was drafted by Maine Municipal Association lawyers.
“There’s a lot of opinion in there,” said Steve Anastasia.
He and others said it reflected a bias against marijuana.
The town’s Warrant Committee also had cited what they saw as problems with the way the proposed moratorium ordinance was crafted.
“The general consensus was that it’s a lot longer and more complicated than it needs to be,” Co-Chairman Jerry Miller said.