BAR HARBOR — Retail sales of recreational marijuana and social clubs for its use could begin popping up around the state early next year, but there won’t be any in Bar Harbor quite yet.
The Town Council Tuesday voted unanimously to instruct the town attorney to draft a 180-day moratorium that temporarily prohibits the retail sale of marijuana, marijuana social clubs and cultivation facilities. Town Attorney Ed Bearor said in an email that the moratorium could be enacted by the council through its police power authority. “This step does not require town meeting vote approval,” he said.
They also asked the planning director and Planning Board to begin work on amendments to the town’s land use ordinance (LUO) specifying appropriate districts for those businesses. Those changes would require a town meeting vote.
Town Manager Cornell Knight said the Marijuana Legalization Act, the citizens’ initiative to legalize recreational pot that was narrowly approved by the state’s voters last month, goes into effect in January. The state Department of Agriculture has been tasked with writing rules to license these facilities. Licensees will have to show that they meet all local ordinances as well as state rules, he said. That allows the town to weigh in, regulating the number and location of such establishments.
Councilors debated whether to ask for a moratorium or an outright prohibition. Councilor Peter St. Germain sought an ordinance banning marijuana retail sales, social clubs and cultivation outright, saying it would buy the town more time to consider its options.
“A moratorium suggests we know where we’re going. But we have no idea. My fear is that in 180 days, there still won’t be a clear path,” he said. “What I’m suggesting is that this gives us a better timeline to handle what’s coming at us.”
Councilor Gary Friedmann said an outright prohibition, even with a promise to reconsider later, would be a “slap in the face” to the majority of the town’s voters who supported legalization, and an unfair burden on the local police.
“A prohibition says we’re predisposed against you guys, and council has no incentive or timeline to do anything,” Friedmann said. “A moratorium sends the message that the council is working towards some kind of reasonable regulation.”
“It’s a welded-shut door,” Councilor Clark Stivers agreed, “versus a door with someone standing there to keep you from going in.”
The moratorium could only be renewed once, buying the town a total of a year. If the towns’ LUO changes and any other ordinances are not in place before the moratorium expires, council Chair Paul Paradis said the town would effectively waive its right to regulate them.
Police Chief Jim Willis and lieutenants were on hand to discuss law enforcement changes and challenges following legalization of recreational marijuana.
Impaired driving is a primary concern, councilors said.
“It’s a crisis right now in law enforcement,” Willis said. The law does not include a legal limit for how much THC, the active intoxicant in marijuana, in a person’s system constitutes impairment, and there’s no parallel to a roadside breathalyzer test. Only a handful of officers are trained as drug recognition experts, and the physical and medical testing they can perform takes time and money.
“When you don’t have presumptive limits, all of the impairment determination at a trial is up to officer testimony,” Willis said. “And all court time is overtime.”
Determining whether a marijuana growing operation is within the legal limits is “a logistical nightmare for law enforcement,” Lt. Dave Kerns said, counting and measuring plants, clippings and flowering buds. It’s better if a town can lay out those rules in municipal code.
“Don’t make law enforcement the face of this,” he said.