(Courtesy National Institute on Drug Abuse)
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Portland city councilors will consider proposed rules for retail recreational marijuana shops that will include a complicated scoring matrix to decide who gets a license.

The Economic Development and Health and Human Services committees recommended a regulation to the City Council that would require businesses to meet criteria and would reward some types of proposals more than others, introducing social policy goals to the licensing process.

The proposal was unanimously approved by the members of both committees, but not without concerns. Notably, there was some concern expressed that the proposal leaned more into social policy rather than focusing on the fact these would be business licenses.

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong believes the city’s criteria for retail marijuana businesses shouldn’t emphasize social policy.

Councilor Tae Chong said the scoring rubric should be rewarding business plans instead of social justice platforms.

“To me this is a business license, so what I want to see is how can we make this a fair business process,” Chong said.

Chong was addressing proposals made by Councilor Belinda Ray. These would have given more weight to an applicant offering to pay employees at least $15 an hour and providing paid time off and benefits, and various kinds of workforce training.

Councilor Nick Mavadones unsuccessfully tried to defeat the proposal, although he wasn’t the only councilor concerned with these proposals. Mavodones also voiced concerns about the scoring rubric, saying how councilors arrived at a numerical value wouldn’t be clear to the public.

The council proposed a rules matrix that would award a maximum of 34 points. For example, six points would be awarded to an applicant where the business is at least 51 percent owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Applicants who have lived in Maine for at least five years would receive five points.

Applicants with experience running a dispensary would be given points, as would applicants who have experience as registered caregivers, who would receive three points. 

An applicant with at least $150,000 in liquid assets will receive two points, as would locations at least 500 feet or more from a school.

Councilor Justin Costa said his preference is to reward applications that are locally focused instead of economically focused.

Portland, despite being considered the state’s most politically progressive city, has lagged behind several other municipalities in establishing a framework for marijuana businesses. City voters overwhelmingly approved legalization during a statewide referendum in 2016. The process to create statewide rules has also moved slowly, with the first licenses not expected until June.

The city will cap the number of retail businesses for adult-only marijuana at 20 stores. The city last year adopted a zoning map that shows where marijuana retail stores could operate. However, despite a year’s worth of debate and back and forth, city officials haven’t made a decision on how many medical and recreational licenses will be available.

Several members of the public spoke against the proposed cap, as well as aspects of the scoring matrix.

David Stevenson, owner of medical marijuana provider Hazy Hill Farms, said he and others don’t support the cap. He also said aspects of the scoring matrix can be harmful to would-be applicants.

“The scoring system will likely be unfair to someone,” he said.

The council will take up this issue at a future meeting.

David Heidrich, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Marijuana Policy, which accepts and approves applications for adult-use marijuana businesses, said the office has accepted the applications on a staggered rollout and is in the process of granting conditional applications.

As of last week, he said his office has had 77 cultivation applications, 93 for retail stores and one testing facility.

“Of those, we have deemed 80 total applications complete, meaning they are undergoing form and substance review and are on their way to getting conditional licenses,” Heidrich said.

He said license approval is a three-step process. The first is getting the conditional license from the Office of Marijuana Policy. The second is getting local authorization, such as from the Portland City Council. The third and final step is to return to the Office of Marijuana Policy for the full license.

“A licensee can’t take possession of the products until they have an active license,” Heidrich said.

A business license needs to be renewed annually, similar to a liquor license.

Dozens of communities around the state have joined the marketplace, but Heidrich said the majority of applications have come from southern and central Maine.