News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, February 2, 2017
Sedgwick planners send proposed pot moratorium to selectmen

by Rich Hewitt

The planning board on Tuesday gave initial approval to a model moratorium ordinance that would put on hold any retail marijuana sales activities in town for at least six months.

The board’s action, according to Chairman Robert Jones, came at the request of the town’s selectmen, and it sets the stage for a vote on the moratorium at the annual town meeting. Board members stressed that their unanimous vote did not establish the moratorium, but served as a recommendation to the selectmen on the form for an ordinance to present to voters. It will be up to the selectmen to decide whether to place the proposed moratorium on the warrant for town meeting.

“This is not a pot ordinance,” Jones said. “It’s not an ordinance to sell pot or to have pot banned. This piece of paper would just put things on hold so we can figure out what we want in an ordinance.”

The model ordinance was provided by Maine Municipal Association which also urged local officials to consult with their attorney before enacting a moratorium.

A moratorium ordinance does not require a public hearing prior to a vote, Jones said, but he added that the ordinance can only be enacted by a vote at a town meeting.

The vote to adopt the model ordinance was unanimous, but board members clearly had reservations about the state’s new marijuana law and the possibility of a moratorium. Voters in November, by a slim margin, approved the referendum that made recreational marijuana use legal. Part of that new law took effect this week, but state lawmakers approved—and Gov. Paul LePage signed—legislation last week that not only closed a loophole in the law that would have made it legal for people under 21 to possess marijuana, but also delayed implementation of the retail sales portion of the new law until 2018.

The referendum, which is now law, rankled Jones who said it was bad legislation.

“It’s very poorly written and it created a lot of questions,” he said. “They passed a law so it’s legal to smoke pot, but now they find out on the retail side that they don’t have enough controls.”

Although he voted to recommend the moratorium to the selectmen board, member Michael Rossney bristled at the idea of putting things on hold and at the state’s efforts to regulate the sales.

“This is our government making a needless law to put up road blocks to a plan that was voted for by the people,” he said. “The state ordinance will treat marijuana the same as we treat alcohol. That’s the road the state is headed down.”

Peter Neill, however, maintained that while the state worked on its regulatory efforts regarding retail marijuana sales, the town also needed a moratorium in order to give the planning board time to develop a local ordinance regarding where and how retail sales can or cannot take place in the town of Sedgwick.

“In the plans we have in place, marijuana is not included or excluded; we’ve never had it before,” Neill said. “It’s a new situation and it seems to me we want to cover all our bases and not have someone slip in between the cracks.”

There were indications Tuesday, though not confirmed, that the town already has received inquiries about obtaining a permit related to marijuana sales.

“If we don’t have a moratorium and someone comes in and creates something, we’ll have one hell of a legal mess,” Jones said.

Although Rossney said he was no marijuana proponent, he wondered if the town might have an opportunity to benefit by the new law. He suggested that it might be possible to impose a municipal tax on any marijuana sales that took place in the town. It could be a “huge opportunity for a town that has been cash strapped for so long,” he said.

Neill said he doubted the state would give up its taxing authority, noting that towns don’t have the authority to tax alcohol sales.

If voters approve a moratorium, Jones said, the planning board would work to develop a local retail marijuana sales ordinance, likely guided by what state lawmakers do as they develop their own rules and regulations for selling pot.