Auburn passes moratorium on medical marijuana caregiver storefronts

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AUBURN — The City Council unanimously passed a moratorium Monday that blocks any new medical marijuana caregiver “storefront” operation or marijuana social club from opening in the city for up to six months. 

The council suspended the rules to waive a second hearing, and the moratorium’s effective date is May 31 — almost three weeks ago. 

Dozens of people sat and waited through the two-hour meeting in order to speak against the moratorium, many concerned that it would cut off medical marijuana patient access. A number of people said the storefront model is beneficial to both caregiver and patient, ultimately making transactions safer. 

Officials said the moratorium will not impact the existing caregiver storefront operations in Auburn, leaving existing patients open to access the caregivers who are already visibly operating.

However, at least one business — Legal Peaces on Turner Street — said it will be impacted by the moratorium due to the timing of its move to a new location. The business recently moved from Center Street to Turner Street, and has said the city is withholding its occupancy permit due to the pending moratorium. 

Its owner, Vincent Gogan, said following the meeting Monday that he will likely have to sue the city over the decision, stating he was purposely misled by Auburn police and city staff over the effective dates. 

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During an earlier workshop session Monday, Aga Dixon, a lawyer from Drummond Woodsum who is representing the city, said the law firm has been advising municipal clients to impose a similar moratorium, “to give time to see how the (state) legislative framework plays out.”

“It’s not entirely clear what they will do,” she said. “As a result, it would give the city some time to understand the disposition of pending bills, and time to consider whether to prepare local ordinances.” 

Auburn police have argued in favor of a moratorium in order to create local zoning laws and ordinances to regulate where such storefronts can operate. Officials have said the caregiver storefronts are operating above the books in Auburn, meaning there are no ordinances that could prevent potential illegal operations. 

Advocates and current caregivers say the caregiver storefront model is safer for both the caregiver and patient. Instead of meeting up in private homes or in parking lots, a patient can walk into a more legitimate, business-like setting. 

Dan Jackson, who owns Fire Pharms in Auburn, said there’s “nothing illegal about” a caregiver storefront. He said he likes the storefront model because he has a family at home and wants to run the business separately.

Fire Pharms, like Legal Peaces, is a tobacco shop with a separate caregiver operation. Jackson said he has a back office where he can consult with patients and educate them on proper dosing or match products to certain ailments.

The moratorium language defines a medical marijuana caregiver storefront as “a retail store, a retail business, or an establishment that resembles a retail storefront in terms of signage, hours of operation, and accessibility to patrons … where a licensed caregiver furnishes or sells marijuana or marijuana products to qualifying patients. …”

Licensed marijuana caregivers in Maine are legally allowed to have five medical marijuana patients, but a caregiver’s fifth patient can be “rotated” out for another patient. That essentially means the next customer to walk in with a medical marijuana card can become a caregiver’s new fifth patient. The current medical laws allow for it, but Auburn police have referred to it as a “loophole.” 

Jackson said “the state knows about the revolving slot,” and that legislation postponed to the next session addresses safe access to medical marijuana and the caregiver storefront model specifically.

Throughout the meeting, Auburn officials struggled to convey to the public what the moratorium was impacting, and its effective date.

Councilor Andrew Titus told the public, “We’re not impacting caregivers. This is specifically on storefronts, with window signs and displays. We’re not trying to stop the caregiving process that’s been done for years.” 

At one point, Mayor Jason Levesque read portions of the moratorium language to the room. 

Titus said councilors are nervous about having signs advertising the operations in Auburn until the state finalizes its new rules concerning marijuana. 

In response, a woman who co-owns a caregiver operation in Millinocket said moratorium like these push caregivers “back to parking lots.”

“Don’t pass a moratorium because you’re scared of a sign,” she said. “We need that so patients can check us out, and see we’re a legal business.” 

John Morris, owner of Port City Relief in Auburn, said he’s investing more than $100,000 into his business. He said the existing businesses are small “mom and pop” stores. He said all the storefronts in Auburn “don’t take the laws lightly.”

“We don’t drive blue Lamborghinis,” Morris said. “I have a Ford F-150.”

Councilors also tried to stifle fears from caregivers. Councilor Holly Lasagna said she believes the moratorium will protect the caregiver storefronts, and that the moratorium is “not stopping you from serving patients.” 

“Ordinances and rules are never intended for people doing the right thing,” Titus said about the need for local rules.

After a long session, Levesque stopped taking public comment. Matt Dubois, a lawyer representing Legal Peaces, was cut off by the mayor when he tried to speak out on the issue. 

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Peter Vondell of Auburn speaks out against the marijuana moratorium during the Auburn City Council meeting on Monday evening. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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