LEWISTON — Caught between state approval to use medicinal marijuana and federal law prohibiting it, tenants of public housing say they need an approved spot to medicate. A Sabattus couple says the answer is a “cannabis club.”

Last month, the city denied an application for Vincent and Shanon Gogan to open a cannabis club on Lisbon Street. The couple has appealed that decision, and a public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, at City Hall.

According to Vincent Gogan, the couple wants to open the club in the back of their smoke shop, Legal Peaces, at 934 Lisbon St. The club would be open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Gogan said, and would provide a place for patients holding valid medical marijuana certificates to smoke and “ingest their medicine.”

“You can’t smoke on Section 8, you can’t smoke in rural housing, no smoking in buildings and you can’t smoke in your vehicle,” Gogan said. “And some people have a lot of kids and they don’t want to smoke around them.”

He said that a club would give people a safe place to smoke.

“It’s like you would meet and smoke your medicine and learn about growing and stuff like that,” Gogan said, without the hassle some of his patients say they’ve endured in public housing and elsewhere.

“One of my patients almost got thrown out of Section 8 housing because he was smoking,” Gogan said. “He got threats, and if he gets caught again, he’ll be thrown out and have to pay back rent.”

According to Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine Housing Authority, tenants who are prescribed medicinal marijuana while already living in public housing are allowed to use if they inform MaineHousing — but MaineHousing does not permit new tenants to grow or use.

According to Turcotte, when a person signs up for Section 8 housing, they have to attest that they don’t use illegal drugs. Since Section 8 is a federal program and marijuana use is illegal under federal law, that use is not permitted in public housing.

At one time, she said, there were eight tenants in Maine who had permission from MaineHousing to use in public housing, but “anyone new moving in? No.”

Even if a person has permission from MaineHousing to smoke, if the landlord has a no-smoking policy, that tenant cannot smoke in the unit, Turcotte said. 

“They have to go somewhere else to smoke it,” she said.

Turcotte said the marijuana use policy that MaineHousing started work on several years ago is on hold until Maine hears from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about whether growing and smoking will be allowed nationwide.

Gogan has been a licensed grower for years. He said he intends to “provide a safe environment” for his patients. The club would include an opportunity for patients to learn how to grow their own marijuana.

“I’ll give them ideas,” Gogan said, “and if people take pictures of their stuff, I’ll tell them what’s wrong with it.”

The couple originally filed their application for a permit to open the club in February.

In a March 4 letter to Vincent Gogan, city Director of Planning and Code Enforcement Gil Arsenault denied the application because the proposed use is not permitted in a “Community Business” district and the proposed club is not an “accessory,” or contributing use, to the existing retail smoke shop.

In their application for appeal, the couple argues that the property — which is owned by Kathleen Rodrique —  was the site of a tattoo parlor in 1993 and again in 2007, permitted to operate by the city in the community business district.

Gogan said the couple holds a tobacco specialty retail III license, “meaning we can smoke in the building.” He said they’re equipped to monitor patients who smoke or ingest the marijuana, “whichever way they need their medicine.”

Club-goers would have to present their marijuana cards before going into the club, and the shop would maintain a copy on file. Users would also have to fill out an agreement of procedure and privacy before being allowed into the club.

Gogan said he hopes to invite speakers for meetings, including the Compassionate Caregivers of Maine in Portland and the Maine Medical Marijuana Caregivers in Augusta, to help club-goers understand marijuana laws and to learn how to renew their cards.

He said he hopes some of his patients will attend the public hearing to speak about the need for the club, “but patients are scared and stuff, so they might not come.”

Gogan noted that the referendum to legalize recreational marijuana has been approved for the November ballot.

“It’s going to be legal in November, so you might as well just get over it now,” he said.

He said he doesn’t believe the city can legally stop him from opening the club.

If the city grants the Gogans’ appeal, the Lewiston club would be the third cannabis club in Maine. Vincent Gogan declined to identify where the other two clubs are, saying he didn’t want the locations to become targets.

But, in his blog on theweedblog.com, Johnny Green writes about the VIP marijuana smoking lounge called 13 Owls Club, run by Christopher Ruhlin, owner of Herbal Tea & Tobacco shop in Bangor.

In that blog, Green quotes assistant Bangor solicitor Paul Nicklas as saying the city has local ordinances in place that cover medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations and they follow the state’s rules on use.

“The plant’s use in a private setting is generally allowed,” he told Green.

The public hearing will be held in Council Chambers on the first floor of City Hall.

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