LEWISTON — The City Council passed a six-month moratorium on medical marijuana caregiver storefronts Tuesday, but made its effective date more lenient to allow last-minute applications to go through.
The move comes as the Legislature has adopted a bill that overhauls the medical marijuana system, and Lewiston officials say the moratorium will give the city time to create unifying zoning ordinances.
Under the new state laws, which will become effective this fall, municipalities must pass an ordinance that specifically allows caregiver storefronts, a business model that has grown in popularity and that allows licensed caregivers sell to patients from a retail location.
Lewiston officials say the city has seen more inquiries from caregivers looking to locate in Lewiston ever since Auburn passed a similar moratorium in June.
Those attending Tuesday’s meeting included caregivers who either had pending applications or were preparing them and had just found out about the moratorium proposal.
Ultimately, the council voted 5-2 to pass the moratorium, but changed its effective date from July 5 to to July 13. Councilors Alicia Rea and Zack Pettengill provided the dissenting votes.
David Hediger, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, told the crowd that businesses with pending applications would not be affected by the moratorium if the applications are in by end of business hours Thursday.
According to Hediger’s memo to the council, as of June 28, records show 15 active primary caregivers operating in the city and 14 pending city approval.
He said some are just grow operations while others are grow operations with retail added. There are also at least seven caregivers who are not grow operations and are only selling medical marijuana, he said.
In the memo, Hediger said that with the advice of the city attorney, the city has treated caregiver operations with the same zoning standards as other medical service providers. That means storefront operations are allowed in 11 of the city’s zoning districts.
He said that while the city regulates the location of medical marijuana primary caregiver operations and dispensaries, it was not anticipated in 2011 — when the current ordinance was enacted — “that such caregivers would extend their operations to storefront retail sales.”
Prior to the vote Tuesday, Rea told the council that the moratorium was “hasty,” reactionary to Auburn’s moratorium and “anti-business.”
However, council President Kristen Cloutier said the moratorium “allows us to create sound policy.”
She suggested the council look at the issue this fall rather than waiting the full six months, especially as the new state laws come into effect. Other councilors agreed on adjusting the effective date to accommodate permits.
Councilor Michael Marcotte said he worried extending the effective date could cause a “mad rush” this week from the number of last-minute applications.
City Administrator Ed Barrett said in October that the council will have to decide on whether it wants to allow caregiver storefronts, followed by a decision on recreational retail next year.
The recreational marijuana bill also includes a municipal “opt-in” clause.
Barrett said the moratorium is necessary until the new medical marijuana laws come into effect to prevent “anything goes” for the next 90 days.
“At the moment, not having anticipated this direction, we have limited control,” he said.
Those at Tuesday’s meeting highlight the confusion that has surrounded the medical marijuana industry as laws are in flux.
One caregiver, who operates Independent Horticulture LLC at 942 Main St., said he operates a business that sells growing materials, with a medical caregiver office upstairs. He said he never got a specific permit for a caregiver storefront because he didn’t know he needed one until a tax assessor came into his office recently. He said he’s put his “life and finances into growing the business.”
Others said they were actively looking for new places to set up grow operations, but were reassured the moratorium will only impact storefront uses.
A Lewiston resident who works with Crystal Spring Healing Alternatives said he respects the city’s decision to regulate the storefronts, but said the retail model is beneficial to caregivers and patients.
“We welcome you to come into our shops and see what we do,” he told the council.
Hediger said those interested in establishing a caregiver storefront need a use permit from code enforcement as well as a local caregiver’s license from the city clerk.
Hediger estimated there have been six applications for retail purposes in recent weeks. The city received three caregiver applications Tuesday, but they are not necessarily related to a storefront operations.
“The code office closes at 4 p.m. Thursday,” he said.