Medical marijuana moratorium clears first hurdle in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday tentatively approved a six-month moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries.

The 5-2 vote, with Councilors Tom Blake and Rosemarie DeAngelis opposed, cleared the way for a final vote on Feb. 1. If it carries a second time, the ban would run from Jan. 11 to June 11, but could be shortened or extended.

Last November, nearly 60 percent of voters statewide approved increasing access to medical marijuana by expanding eligibility and establishing non-profit dispensaries for patients who cannot grow their own product. South Portland voters backed the citizen-led initiative by a more than 2-1 margin, 7,990 to 3,464. 

Distributors will not be able to open for business until a licensing procedure is established by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

City Attorney Sally Dagget said the initiative sets an April 22 deadline for DHHS to establish its rules; otherwise distributors could sue to obtain a license. However, the DHHS recently indicated those rules would not be ready until June.

“What happens between April and June, we don’t know,” Dagget said.

But Dagget cautioned that distributors – even without a state license – could secure facilities and gain local approvals within the context of the current ordinance. Distributors could argue dispensaries are medical offices or pharmacies, she said.

If those local approvals are granted, Dagget said dispensaries could not grow or sell marijuana until licensed by the state. But they would be grandfathered from any future changes to the local ordinance seeking to limit the number and location of dispensaries in the city, she said.

Mayor Tom Coward said the moratorium is needed to head off opposition to an established dispensary.

“I would like to see the (rules) done ahead of time and iron out as many wrinkles as we can,” Coward said.

Councilor Rosemarie DeAngelis said she opposes the ban because it seems like South Portland is making a moral judgment against the dispensaries, which were overwhelmingly approved by voters.

DeAngelis criticized wording in the council resolution stating dispensaries could negatively affect the “moral climate” in the city – a phrase that was ultimately removed.  

“I bristled when I heard that,” she said. “It’s not our purview to determine the moral climate of our city. That’s not a policy decision; that’s a value judgment.”

Councilor Linda Boudreau, however, said the ban is necessary to prevent dispensaries from being established next to public facilities like the Boys & Girls Club, community centers and day-care centers.

“We’re not talking about licensing pedophiles,” DeAngelis said. “We’re talking about licensing medical marijuana dispensaries. I’m wondering why we’re thinking about it any differently than a liquor store or a drug store.”

Councilor Tom Blake said a moratorium goes beyond protecting the health, safety and welfare of residents and constituted “a misuse of our power.”

“In this case, we have gone beyond (protecting residents) and hit the panic button,” Blake said.

Councilor Jim Hughes said the ban would protect the city in the event the state “makes an odd-ball turn” and comes out with regulations sooner than expected.

“Truthfully, I’m afraid the state will screw this up,” Hughes said. “I think it’s a good idea for us to lag behind the state on this so we can – at least in our little end of the world – clean up what they goof up.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or