Flames shoot from the second and third floors of an apartment house at College and Vale streets Tuesday. The fire started in a second-floor bedroom used for growing medical marijuana for personal use, an official said.
LEWISTON — Only luck has kept private marijuana growing operations from killing someone in a fire, city officials said Wednesday.
“Right now, this marijuana thing is like the Wild West out here,” Code Enforcement Officer Jeffrey Baril said a day after a fire in a grow room in an apartment building on College and Vale streets dislocated six tenants.
The fire erupted around 9 a.m., when most tenants were awake or out of the building.
City officials said the outcome likely would have been deadly had the tent in a grow room in a second-story bedroom burst into flames late at night or in the early hours of the morning.
“We have just been lucky, lucky, lucky that none of these have turned into a fatality,” Baril said, referring to three fires in the city linked to marijuana grow operations.
The tenant in Tuesday’s fire had a medical marijuana card that entitled him to grow plants to support his prescription drug, but Baril said that tenant still had a responsibility to ensure his setup was safe.
“If you’re living in a multifamily building, just because you may by law or by lack of law be able to grow, doesn’t mean you should,” Baril said. “I would encourage anybody that feels they have to, they ought to have a licensed electrician check and make sure the electrical loads that they’re putting on their electrical services be proper, because the life they save may be their own or their family member.”
Many of the residential buildings in the city, especially older stock, aren’t designed to support a grow operation, he said.
“You’ve got smells, overloading of power, this is a code department nightmare,” he said.
Landlords who have questions about their buildings’ electrical services should contact a licensed electrician or check with the city’s electrical inspectors, Baril said. In some cases, he said, he has forced landlords to add circuits to their buildings’ electrical panels “because I was afraid of fire. And the landlord agreed with me. Even though he evicted that person later, he did add some circuits in the meantime so that we wouldn’t have a loss of life or property.”
Gil Arsenault, the city’s director of planning and code enforcement, said the city changed its ordinances in 2011 to regulate marijuana dispensaries and primary caregiver operations, barring them from growing in multifamily dwellings and limiting their presence to areas zoned for commercial or industrial use.
“However, we didn’t believe we necessarily had the authority to regulate the individual that may grow for him or herself, but still realizing that there may be some potential issues as a result of that,” he said.
Arsenault said the landscape might change dramatically when the state addresses the legalization of recreational use of marijuana that was passed at referendum last year.
“From my standpoint, I would prefer to see it illegal for anybody to grow in a multifamily dwelling,” he said, but added he can only make recommendations as city staff. The enactment of law is left to elected officials, he said.
If the referendum were to make marijuana easily accessible, it may eliminate the need for anyone to have to grow it at home, he said.
It’s unknown whether the Trump administration will decide to enforce federal laws that still regard marijuana as an illegal drug, Arsenault said.
He said landlords could take action by contacting an attorney or landlord association for guidance on marijuana grow operations in their units.
“I don’t know why a landlord couldn’t simply have a lease agreement or rental agreement that makes it clear that, no, there will be no growing in my apartment,” he said. “My advice to landlords is you really have to start thinking about what’s going on in your buildings because there could be some liability to you in the event there is a fire.”
Baril said anyone — landlords and tenants alike — should take action if they fear someone there might be in an unsafe situation in the building they own or in which they live.
“If you know of a grow in your building and you’re worried about it, at least let us know and we can go look and make sure at least there’s enough juice supplying that grow or we can shut it down,” he said. “Somebody’s going to get killed with this.”