Vincent Gogan says he is getting pushback from Auburn officials about expanding his Legal Peaces smoke shop and medical marijuana caregiver business in Auburn because of a possible moratorium. The city disputes his claim. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

AUBURN — A medical marijuana caregiver and owner of two smoke shops says his business is being unfairly targeted by police as Auburn officials consider a moratorium on retail marijuana and medical “storefront” operations.

Vincent Gogan, owner of Legal Peaces smoke shops in Auburn and on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, claimed Auburn is withholding a certificate of occupancy for his business’s new location at 197 Turner St. because of the proposed moratorium.

City councilors are not set to vote on the moratorium until June 18, and questions remain over how the moratorium will affect caregiver storefront operations.

“The chief of police is trying to kick all the caregiver stores out,” Gogan said Wednesday.

The biggest question leading up to the council’s decision will be whether the existing businesses will be grandfathered — allowing them to continue operations as the city hashes out new ordinance language.

If approved, the moratorium would bar retail and medical retail “storefront” operations for 180 days, beginning June 18. The definition of “storefront” as it relates to marijuana caregivers must be determined.

Gogan recently moved his Auburn location from 120 Center St. to Turner Street. He said he had secured all of the required city permits and passed a city inspection but was told he needed occupancy approval from the police chief, which he still hasn’t received.

Matt Dubois, a lawyer representing Gogan, said the city is purposely holding up the business’s certificate of occupancy for its new location because of the proposed moratorium.

He said Wednesday that “because a theoretical ordinance isn’t a basis to withhold approval, all legal options are on the table, up to and including litigation.”

The Auburn Police Department referred all questions to City Manager Peter Crichton on Wednesday, who said he is drafting the moratorium language, but he did not comment on Legal Peaces.

City staff said that permitting for Legal Peaces is being processed at a normal pace.

“It takes time to process permits,” said Eric Cousens, deputy director of economic and community development.

He said occupancy permits do not generally need approval from the police chief, but food licenses require police approval.

STOREFRONTS ‘POPPING UP’

Police Chief Phil Crowell discussed the moratorium with the City Council during a workshop Monday, saying police have seen “more and more” medical marijuana retail operations popping up in Auburn, which has no ordinances on the books prohibiting such uses.

In February, the council formed a work group to look at the issue and “the impacts of adult use marijuana,” which became legal in Maine in November 2016. Despite being legal, the state Legislature has not completed the rule-making process necessary to regulate retail marijuana operations.

As the industry awaits the official regulations, Crowell said, medical marijuana caregivers are establishing retail storefronts in Auburn and using a loophole in state law to sell to more medical marijuana patients than the law intended.

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.

Crowell said he believes the operations are popping up in anticipation of recreational retail marijuana being legal. He said other storefronts are on Minot Avenue, Center Street and Riverside Drive in New Auburn.

A draft of the moratorium language has not been made public, but the council’s memo this week called Auburn’s ordinances “insufficient to prevent serious public harm that could be caused by the unregulated development of retail marijuana establishments and other uses authorized by the ‘Marijuana Legalization Act’ approved at the Nov. 8, 2016, referendum election, thereby necessitating a moratorium to provide an opportunity for the city to amend its code of ordinances to mitigate the potential impact and harm on the city and its residents.”

Councilor Andrew Titus, a member of the marijuana work group, said during Monday’s workshop that he’s in favor of having legal retail marijuana businesses in Auburn, but he believes a moratorium is necessary for Auburn to play catch-up.

“I want to see it regulated and work, but there’s a lot of detail we have to go through, and the state has been dragging their feet,” he said, adding that he wanted Auburn to get started on its local laws two years ago.

Attorney Dubois, who operates Bangor-based Maine CannaCounsel, which specializes in marijuana law, said “it is disturbing that certain city officials are promoting the idea of shutting down five or more small businesses that have been in operation for months or even longer, as a worthwhile goal.”

“Whether the moratorium is retroactive or not, if the city denies my clients a certificate of occupancy without a valid reason, they’ll pursue all available remedies,” he said.

MODEL WITHIN BOUNDS OF LAW

In the past few years, and especially after the 2016 referendum legalizing marijuana in Maine, the cannabis industry has established a heavy presence in Auburn, but city officials say local zoning laws and ordinances have not caught up.

Gogan said Auburn had previously held the image that it was friendly to medical marijuana caregivers on top of the many medical marijuana growing and cultivation locations in the city.

The city is home to Remedy Compassion Center, one of the original state-regulated medical marijuana dispensaries. Remedy would not be impacted by a moratorium.

“All of a sudden they want to kick all the caregivers out after they put it out there that they were friendly,” Gogan said.

Dubois said the caregivers serve a large number of patients, some of whom lack reliable transportation and could lose affordable access to their marijuana if the storefronts were shut down.

“The idea of stripping these caregivers of the right to serve their patients at locations they’ve spent considerable time and money to develop is extremely problematic, from both a legal and fairness perspective,” he said.

Crowell said at Monday’s workshop that as soon as the proposed moratorium hit the website, “there was movement from businesses trying to get ahead of this.”

Crowell said he recommended the council seek a legal opinion on whether the city should be required to grandfather the existing storefront operations, prior to June 18.

Asked Monday whether the caregiver storefronts were having a negative impact, Crowell said police often receive complaints from nearby businesses. Recently, an Auburn day care operator questioned why a caregiver storefront was allowed to open nearby.

Crowell said the marijuana work group has been looking at possible ordinance language, including where storefronts could be allowed to operate.

Mayor Jason Levesque said Monday that the two-week window until the next City Council meeting gives officials “more than enough time for a good policy decision to be made regarding this.”

Dubois said many people, including municipal officials and even caregivers themselves, don’t fully understand the legal status of caregiver storefronts.

“Not only is this model entirely within the bounds of Maine’s medical marijuana law, it also benefits both caregivers and patients,” he said. “The storefront model allows caregivers to serve a greater number of patients over time, better cover operating costs, and provide more affordable medicine to patients.”

Lewiston passed an ordinance on recreational retail marijuana last year in anticipation of new state regulations, but medical marijuana caregivers have opened storefront operations, City Administrator Ed Barrett said.

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