Portland councilors approve procedure for retail marijuana licenses

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After several months of delays and discussion, Portland city councilors on Monday night approved a marijuana business ordinance.

Councilors voted 8-1 for the licensing ordinance for adult-use retail establishments during a five-hour meeting. Councilor Kim Cook cast the only vote in opposition.

The discussion included several proposed amendments, and unlike the state, councilors ultimately decided on a scoring matrix that gives preference for 20 city licenses to business owners who have lived in Maine at least five years.

Several members of the public spoke out against the cap during the meeting, and Councilor Belinda Ray proposed an amendment to raise the cap to 25, which was defeated. 

The Portland City Council in a remote meeting on May 18 finally approved rules for licensing adult-use retail marijuana businesses. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Joe Pepin, president of the Maine Cannabis Industry Association, said a cap of 20 will create a situation where people are crowding the businesses that are open.

“We support increasing the cap,” he said. “The demand is there.”

The Maine Office of Marijuana Policy had required at least four years of residency for a business license, although it abandoned that after a legal challenge from Wellness Connection of Maine, the state’s largest medical marijuana operator.

Things began to get complicated for the council after public comment, when Councilor Pious Ali moved to bifurcate the order, separating retail licenses from things like cultivation facilities. His goal was to pass the cultivation and manufacturing side, while sending the retail rules back to committee.

While councilors agreed to bifurcate for the purpose of discussion, there was some confusion and debate on the order in which to consider things. Councilors eventually voted not to send retail back to committee, and in the end voted to reunify the two parts.

Ray also proposed four other amendments: Not requiring retail stores to have a performance guarantee, allowing geographic transfers of business licenses, bringing the Portland ordinance into compliance with the state ordinance on signage, and allowing all the licenses to be awarded in one round instead of on a rolling basis.

Cook was absent for these votes, and only the signage compliance amendment succeeded.

Councilor Jill Duson called for reconsideration of the amendment calling for a single round of business license awards, and after some initial confusion the reconsidered amendment passed 6-2, with Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Tae Chong opposed and Cook absent.

Ali also proposed an amendment that would have reduced the buffer zone between businesses from 250 feet to 100 feet. The amendment failed 6-3, with Cook, Ali and Ray in the minority.

Under the city’s matrix, more points will be awarded to socially or economically disadvantaged applicants, existing business owners, those who pay higher wages, companies that donate an amount of profits to the city to fight substance abuse, and others, for a maximum of 34 points:

  • Six points for an application at least 51 percent owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
  • Five points for a business at least 51 percent owned by someone who has been a Maine resident for at least five years.
  • Six points for anyone with experience running a business in a highly regulated industry like marijuana, liquor, banking, and others, and with no history of violations or license suspensions.
  • Four points for an applicant who has previously been licensed by the state or a Maine municipality for non-marijuana related business, also with no history of violations or suspension for at least five years.
  • Three points for an applicant who has been a registered caregiver in Maine for at least two years.
  • Four points for ownership of the proposed retail location by the applicant, or at least a five-year lease.
  • Two points for at least $150,000 in liquid assets.
  • And four points for a commitment to a social and economic development plan, which includes offering jobs of at least $15 an hour; offering benefits like paid time off and health benefits; providing at least one annual training on diversity, cultural awareness and other causes; and an annual contribution of 1 percent of profits to the city for substance abuse education and prevention.

Councilor Justin Costa proposed eliminating the final bullet point, although that was defeated, with Costa, Ali and Cook in favor.

Ray noted the matrix will only be necessary if the city receives more than 20 applications. If it receives fewer, the matrix, while still being used to evaluate, will not be the deciding factor.

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