NORWAY — Can the town call a pot grower registered under the Maine Medical Use Marijuana Program a business under Norway’s Site Plan Ordinance?

That’s the question town officials are grappling with after discovering there is a legal growing business in a local home.

“If it’s a home business, why is it not treated like any other home business under our Site Plan Review?” Planning Board Chairman Dennis Gray asked. He said all home businesses generally come before the board to ensure they are compliant with the Site Plan Ordinance.

“It surprised us. It hadn’t come to our attention before,” he said Wednesday.

The issue recently surfaced when local police conducted a wellness check on some children at the undisclosed address and discovered the growing operation. Because it is a rental property and had some mold and heating/exhaust issues, Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman was called in.

“We’re struggling to get some answers,” Corey-Whitman said. She has found no precedent to inform a decision.

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Corey-Whitman said the MMA attorney interprets the state law to say it can be treated as a business but the town’s attorney does not agree.

She said the MMA attorney’s interpretation of the state law regarding money earned is, since the person can “receive reasonable monetary compensation for costs associated with assisting a qualifying patient who is designated the primary caregiver; for costs associated with cultivating marijuana.…” it is a business and as such under Norway’s Site Plan Ordinance, the town can treat this it as any other small or home business.

“We have home day care and countertop manufacturers come to the Planning Board. This particular example is on a rental property that the landlord had no idea what was happening as the caregiver is a sublet,” she said. “It’s a sticky situation.”

The MMA attorney has suggested that the town add language to the Site Plan Ordinance to cover the issue of medical marijuana caregivers.

Under the Maine Medical Use Marijuana Program established in 2009, primary caregivers must be older than 18 and register with the state, except in several cases such as if a primary caregiver is a member of the household of that primary caregiver.

The state of Maine requires people applying to be a caregiver to complete a criminal background check and submit all of the required paperwork. In order to begin cultivating medicine, a caregiver must first have a qualifying patient designate them as their exclusive caregiver on a state application.

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The caregiver pays the state $300 per license for each patient.

An annual report by the Department of Health and Human Services released in August shows the medical marijuana program is growing. Some 575 people applied to the state last year to grow medical marijuana — 521 of those new applications. The state’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries employed 84 people.

Nationwide, there are 18 states that allow the use of medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington recently legalized recreational use of the drug and many say there is big money to be made.

The issue of whether a marijuana caregiver can be designated as a business if it is in a home in Norway is one of many questions officials have grappled with statewide after the Maine Medical Use Marijuana Program was established.

In 2010, for example, Lewiston city councilors voted unanimously, over the objections of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, to approve a pair of ordinances aimed at regulating medical marijuana growing and distributing operations.

Lewiston’s rule, in part, required those providing medical marijuana for two to five patients to get city licenses and to meet certain fire safety, building and code rules. The council particularly cited fear of fire safety, with grow lights and other heating sources in the older buildings and multifamily housing in town.

Because the issue is just at the beginning in Norway, the distributor is already in business and there have been no complaints from residents, Town Manager David Holt has recommended a meeting to discuss the review process prior to conducting the actual review by the Planning Board.

Gray said if the ordinance is changed, a public hearing will be held.

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