News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, September 28, 2017
Surry changes marijuana prohibition plan
Five proposed ordinances, referendum vote

Discussing marijuana

Former selectman Dale Sprinkle discussed problems that he thought might arise from retail marijuana establishments.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

Citing “a larger audience” and the ability to accept absentee ballots, the selectmen canceled a special town meeting to vote on a proposed ordinance prohibiting retail marijuana establishments and social clubs in Surry. Instead, the ordinance will be decided by referendum during the November 7 general election, Selectman Bill Matlock announced at a public hearing on Wednesday, September 20.

Selectmen then reconvened on Monday, September 25, where they unanimously voted to separate the proposed ordinance prohibiting all retail marijuana establishments and social clubs into five, each prohibiting a specific retail operation allowed under the law, acting on “just a feeling that maybe we ought to give people a little leeway between black and white,” Chairman Steve Bemiss said.

Many citizens at the September 20 hearing found the one-size-fits-all proposed ordinance prohibiting all five retail operations—testing facilities, product facilities, stores, cultivation facilities, and social clubs—flawed.

Rob Duhaime spoke to small-town economics. “Small, cottage industries are the foundation of what makes Maine survivable. To deny residents the opportunity to make a business is shortsighted,” he said, pointing to marijuana product facilities as one example, which could be a home-based occupation making products to be sold elsewhere.

“It seems we’re coming from a defensive position,” another resident said. “How are we justifying limiting a legal resident from doing something completely legal? Someone should be telling us why we should pass this, not limit it.”

Matlock said selectmen were following the wishes of Surry residents, who voted against the Marijuana Legalization Act last November by a 4 percent margin, or 49 votes out of 1,003 cast. The referendum narrowly passed statewide.

Under the law, personal use and possession and retail stores, social clubs, testing facilities, cultivation and product facilities are legal in Maine. A bipartisan legislative committee is working to create the legal framework for regulating the retail aspects, for which a statewide moratorium is in place through January 31.

Former selectman Dale Sprinkle raised the specter of local businesses being overtaken by “goons who look like they’re from Sing Sing,” operating the establishment under a resident’s license, and owners selling “out the back door” to make ends meet.

“This has happened in Colorado,” Sprinkle said. “Would it happen in Surry? Probably not.”

He also said that Surry would be responsible for any additional law enforcement needed as it has no contract with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, adding to Matlock’s concerns of impaired drivers in Surry, especially if it is the only Peninsula town with legal retail marijuana. Blue Hill voters opted to prohibit all retail marijuana in a September 26 referendum, Ellsworth has a two-year moratorium in place, and the Bucksport Town Council has also passed a prohibition ordinance.

In addition, the economic benefit to the town from retail marijuana would be little, according to Matlock. Legislators have proposed a 20 percent tax on retail establishments. Of that revenue, towns would receive 5 percent, equaling 1 percent of the business’s total sales.

Matlock emphasized that legal medical, personal use, possession and cultivation of marijuana are not affected by the proposed ordinance because only retail operations fall under Home Rule.

For those who felt that selectmen were premature in putting forth a “blanket” prohibition ordinance before state regulations were in place, Matlock had a simple answer: vote against the ordinance.

For his part, he said, “I just don’t feel our little town is capable of handling all the implications [of retail marijuana]. I do think it would be a real challenge.”

A second public hearing on the five proposed ordinances will be held Tuesday, October 10, at 6 p.m. at Surry Elementary School.