Oxford advisory committee to put forth moratorium on retail marijuana

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OXFORD — An advisory committee, looking at retail recreational cultivation and sales of marijuana, has voted to draft a moratorium to temporarily prohibit the licensing, location and operation of retail marijuana establishments in Oxford.

The moratorium vote is expected to take place in late January 2018.

“We need to do something now,” said Retail Recreational Cultivation (RCC) committee Chairman Pete Laverdiere at the Nov. 15 meeting of the advisory committee.

If approved, the action would temporarily prohibit retail stores, cultivation, manufacturing and testing facilities, and retail marijuana social clubs for 180 days and provide advisory committee members time to write an ordinance permanently prohibiting the same.

The ordinance would then go before annual town meeting voters in June 2018.

If the moratorium is approved in January, Oxford will join a growing number of communities across the state that have implemented or considered temporary bans on businesses that could open as soon as state legislators work out issues being debated in the retail recreational marijuana legislation.

The law says none of this can happen without approval from the state licensing authority and the host municipality.

On Nov. 8, 2016, Maine voters approved Question 1 and joined eight other states to legalize the recreational use, retail sale and taxation of marijuana. On Jan. 27, 2017, the Legislature placed a moratorium on certain parts of the law regarding retail sales and taxation until at least February 2018.

Towns can regulate the number, location and operation of retail marijuana stores, cultivation, manufacturing and testing facilities and social clubs, and can impose a local licensing requirement. As with alcohol sales, cities and towns can vote on whether or not to be a “dry town” regarding marijuana retail establishments and social clubs.

Private marijuana possession and growing will still be allowed under current state law even in towns that ban retail businesses.

The portion of the law that allows persons older than 21 to grow six mature plants and possess 2.5 ounces became effective on Jan. 30, 2017. Regardless of these changes to Maine law, marijuana is still illegal on the federal level.

Several members of the committee, including Laverdiere and Town Manager Butch Asselin, said they attended a workshop at the Augusta Civic Center earlier in the day with the Maine Municipal Association’s Legal, State & Federal Relations staffs on to learn more about what could be done regarding legal marijuana use, cultivation and sales in Maine.

Laverdiere said he is concerned with enforcement of the law and the associated financial costs.

“I’m still of the opinion it will bankrupt small towns and I don’t want to be one of those towns,” Laverdiere said of the possible need to use legal counsel to resolve issues if retail recreational marijuana establishments are allowed in the future in Oxford.

Committee says no

The advisory committee, set up by the Board of Selectmen on Oct. 5,  has been clear that it does not want retail marijuana in Oxford.

“I think we should have an ordinance that says we do not want it here,” said advisory committee member Roger Wulleman. “Why should we have to bear the brunt of [statewide] legalization?”

In addition to Wulleman, Asselin and Laverdiere, members include Rosemary Nicklaus, Police Chief Jon Tibbetts, Town Clerk Elizabeth Olsen, Ron Kugell, Dennis Fournier and Dana Dillingham.

Residents, such as local businessman Tom Hamann whose limited liability company, HBC LLC, was recently granted conditionally the town’s third and final medical marijuana permit, have also come to the meetings to participate in the discussion.

Advisory committee members said they believe they have the backing of townspeople to prohibit retail recreational marijuana establishments in town.

In addition to the failure of the majority of townspeople to approve the statewide ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana during the November 2016 state election, the majority of residents recently rejected the possibility of retail marijuana being sold or cultivated in Oxford in a recent town-wide survey.

The survey was distributed to voters at the referendum election on Nov. 7 and was available at the Town Office. About 700 surveys were mailed out to residents.

Some of the results were up for interpretation, said a few committee members, possibly because of the confusion in reading the questions the way they were presented.

Approximately 287 of the 455 surveyed said they want to prohibit all retail recreational marijuana activities. There were 169 who said they don’t want prohibition and 17 said they were unclear.

Of those who said no to prohibiting all, 132 said they would allow retail stores, 140, cultivation, 122 manufacturing, 133 lab testing facilities and 66 social clubs.

The survey also asked about restriction of retail store sites, social clubs, cultivation facilities, and other questions.

Olsen said she believes there was some confusion about the questions. Others agreed, but Asselin said he believes there was a clear consensus about not wanting social clubs, for example.

Current interest

Currently, the town has three medical marijuana licenses. Although the advisory committee’s work is not involved with medical marijuana, at least one of those permit holders has voiced interest in using their facility for the cultivation of recreational marijuana.

In August 2016, the Oxford Planning Board approved a change of business use for the former Burlington Homes building at 620 Main St. for cultivating medical marijuana but the owner said at the time that the building would eventually be a prime site for cultivating recreational marijuana.

In January of this year, Joel Pepin, who leases space at the former factory for a medical marijuana operation, told the Advertiser Democrat that by obtaining a retail cultivation license for the Oxford site, he would have the ability to supply retail stores around Maine.

“We will cross the retail bridge as final regulations from the Legislature are outlined,” he said. Pepin, a former Auburn resident, said the building is ideal for indoor recreational marijuana cultivation with its high ceilings and three-phase power.

The advisory committee is expected to use a Maine Municipal Association template, that many other cities and towns are using, as its basis for the moratorium.

“I think the townspeople have already spoken,” reiterated Wulleman of the desire to prohibit retail recreational marijuana activity in Oxford.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net