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Tech Will Help Auburn, Maine, Enforce Recreational Pot Rules

The city is going the high-tech route, using an interactive graphic information system, or GIS, map to quickly identify whether a parcel is suitable for a new recreational marijuana business.

(TNS) — With new state rules on how to grow, sell and buy recreational marijuana poised to take effect in September and retail stores expected to open early next year, Maine cities are scrambling with how to handle the expected deluge of new businesses.

The city of Auburn initially looked at a cap, similar to a controversial proposal that Portland officials are mulling to limit the number of medical and adult-use marijuana retail stores to 20, but decided against it.

Instead, Auburn is going the high-tech route, using an interactive graphic information system, or GIS, map to quickly identify whether a parcel is suitable. This way, they can control where the new businesses can be located.

The city went live with the map, which currently shows only medical marijuana businesses, on its website Friday. To date, 43 existing and new medical marijuana businesses have applied for a license to operate in that city.

Auburn’s ordinance covers medical and recreational, or adult-use, marijuana businesses. The city recently required existing and new medical marijuana businesses to file an application to operate in the city.

Neighboring Lewiston still is working on its marijuana ordinance.

Blue circles on the map identify 750-foot buffer zones around schools where marijuana businesses cannot locate.

When the recreational marijuana businesses are added as a second step to the mapping, they will show a 1,000-foot buffer between marijuana stores in the downtown district. Existing facility locations are not subject to the buffer zones.

Orange circles show areas where businesses have submitted applications for marijuana storefronts or cultivation facilities. Clicking on any circle brings up a table of the location, business type and the status of the application.

“That’s going to enable us to make decisions about the school buffers quickly,” said Eric Cousens, deputy director of Auburn’s economic and community development office. “It also will allow someone looking for a site to put in the address to determine if it’s within 750 feet of a property that we require a buffer around by local ordinance.”

He said the city is not creating the map to help promote marijuana businesses, although anyone can look at it to see the potential and existing locations of businesses.

The slow rollout of recreational marijuana

At the end of the latest legislative session, Gov. Janet Mills on June 27 signed into law the rules for recreational marijuana sales and oversight. They take effect in September, close to three years after voters approved recreational marijuana. Municipalities must “opt in” to allow recreational marijuana businesses.

The law becomes effective in September. At that point, the state’s Office of Marijuana Policy has 60 days to finalize regulations. Then, the state must start accepting applications within 30 days.

State officials say retail adult-use marijuana could arrive in stores as soon as early 2020.

Industry experts expect Maine’s recreational marijuana market to be much larger than the medical market, hitting an estimated $250 million to $300 million in sales once it ramps up.

Cousens said he’s surprised at how long the rollout is taking.

“It was more complicated than I expected it to be to come up with our local ordinance, so I can just imagine how complicated it is to deal with the other aspects that the state is dealing with,” he said. “But it’s better getting it right than doing something quickly.”

Auburn already is home to a group of medical marijuana businesses, including Wellness Connection of Maine, which has the most dispensaries in the state, and Curaleaf, which has a retail marijuana store. Most of the other operations are caregiver cultivation locations.

“People look at Auburn because they can apply for a medical license now,” Cousens said. “They’re not sure what the rules are going to be in other places. This is part of our economy.” He said the city has new and substantially renovated buildings for marijuana businesses.

The 1,000-foot buffer zones between retail stores and between stores and cultivation facilities will result in about 20 stores spread all over the city.

“We saw some value in not having a marijuana district or cluster of retail stores,” Cousens said. “As they get approved, the buffer will become a regulatory buffer so no other businesses could go within 1,000 feet in our downtown district.”

The city’s industrial zones do not have that buffer limitation because officials wanted to encourage cultivation facilities in them.

Auburn may be an industry leader

Auburn is one of 20 municipalities that have voted to “opt in” to authorize adult-use marijuana. The Maine Municipal Association has produced a chart detailing each municipality’s “opt in” choices for each of the four business categories allowed by the state: retail, growing, manufacturing and testing.

Auburn, Bangor, Waterville, Farmington and South Portland are among the 15 municipalities that allow all four.

Auburn required existing medical marijuana businesses to file for a license by July 30, and new businesses after Aug. 1. Getting those licenses will secure their location and prevent someone from trying to set up shop next to them, Assistant City Manager Phil Crowell said earlier this summer.

The city received 43 medical marijuana licenses as of Aug. 8. Of those, 38 were from existing businesses. Another five were from new businesses. Most of the total licenses were for cultivation. Seven were for stores.

Curaleaf, the only medical marijuana dispensary in Auburn, filed for a store license, and Wellness Connection of Maine, which owns four of the eight medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, filed for both a manufacturing and cultivation license.

Applications for any medical marijuana business are $500 and nonrefundable, Cousens said. The license fees will pay for one city employee focused on the marijuana business and supplement those in other departments who are contributing time.

“This was one of the key things in our City Council, that we had a program that would pay for itself, and the homeowner in Auburn wasn’t going to see a cost in their tax bill for allowing the marijuana businesses to exist,” he said.

The city is currently reviewing applications and scheduling inspections at each facility. Under Auburn’s ordinance, the planning, code-enforcement, fire, police, sanitation and food departments all will review the businesses.

If a license is granted there are additional annual fees. Stores are $5,000 a year, cultivation facilities $1,000, and manufacturing and testing facilities $2,500 each.

Recreational marijuana fees will be charged on the same four tiers that govern number of plants or facility size.

“I suspect that as soon as conditional [adult-use] licenses are available from the state, applications for some of the medical marijuana businesses will convert to adult-use,” Cousens said. “I’m not sure if the tax difference is going to be enough of an incentive to maintain a medical program.”

The state taxes medical marijuana at 5.5 percent and plans to tax recreational marijuana at 20 percent. But the price of medical marijuana is much higher than recreational in those states where both are legal.

Patricia Rosi, CEO of Wellness Connection of Maine, said in June that she expects recreational marijuana to contribute more to sales once her company enters that market.

“Medical marijuana sales continue to trend down. Eight years after we started, sales now are down 50 percent,” she said. “We’ll stay in medical, but it will become 15 percent to 20 percent of our business, with 80 percent recreational.”

When the market opens in September, Auburn will require recreational marijuana businesses to first file an application for a conditional license with the state before filling out the municipal application.

“We are currently working on developing the applications that will be used by licensees,” said David Heidrich Jr., director of engagement and community outreach for Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy.

©2019 The Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.