Augusta City Considers Recreational Marijuana Sales

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Joint and buds Augusta
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Augusta has allowed the sale of medical marijuana since 2019.

AUGUSTA — City councilors are considering whether to allow marijuana to be sold in Augusta to all adults, not just those certified to use it for medical reasons.

Several councilors expressed support for the idea after hearing from state officials that it could create jobs, move sales of pot from the illicit black market to a taxable, regulated market and ensure users get a safer, higher-quality product.

Since 2019, the city has allowed medical marijuana sales in Augusta, but not adult-use, recreational sales.

Ward 3 City Councilor Michael Michaud, after hearing last week from officials of the state Office of Cannabis Policy, said the city should lift its ban on adult-use marijuana sales.

“I’m in favor, I believe in free enterprise and I’d sponsor any type of legislation at the local level that would allow retail businesses (selling marijuana) in Augusta,” Michaud said at an informational, nonvoting council meeting.

He said he knows that many people in Augusta drive to neighboring Manchester to buy marijuana because adult-use sales are allowed there.

Other councilors, most of whom were not on the City Council in 2019, when city leaders opted not to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, also expressed support for the idea. Some wondered why the city would only allow medical sales, which state officials said are less regulated than adult-use sales.

“I work in drug policy, so I understand, 100%, that a regulated supply is a safer supply,” said At-Large Councilor Courtney Gary-Allen, organizing director for the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. “And that is the intent of regulating cannabis. Based on this information, the safer supply is the adult-use cannabis. Which makes my brain hurt, of why we have medical-use, but not adult-use, cannabis.”

John Hudak, director of the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy, responded, “That makes two of us.”

Hudak and Lisa Roberts, deputy director of strategic initiatives for the Office of Cannabis Policy, said adult-use marijuana has tighter packaging and labeling requirements than medical marijuana in Maine and a limit on its maximum potency, which medical marijuana does not have. Testing is required for adult-use marijuana, but optional for medical marijuana.

About 14% of Maine’s municipalities have opted to allow adult-use marijuana businesses since use of the drug was made legal for adults under state law, according to Hudak. He said some officials have reservations because of “old school propaganda that has really institutionalized ideas and beliefs, not just about what cannabis is and does, but about who a cannabis user is and what they do.”

A common fear about allowing a cannabis retail store into a municipality is it would increase crime. Studies have shown, however, a cannabis dispensary reduces crime, especially when it fills a vacant storefront, Hudak said.

Roberts said access to adult-use retail stores by youths is all but nonexistent because shops are required to have someone checking identifications of anyone who enters, to ensure they are at least 21 years old. She said there has not been an uptick in youths using marijuana since adult-use marijuana was legalized. She noted that youths have access to the illicit marijuana market.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins said regulating adult-use marijuana businesses could further burden the city’s already overworked code enforcement office, and said any consideration of allowing those sales should include discussion of ensuring licensing fees for those businesses could cover the cost of hiring additional staff members to oversee the new businesses.

Councilors asked city staff members to come back with information on Augusta’s current licensing fees for medical marijuana businesses.

Roberts said a bill passed by the last state Legislature allows municipalities to be reimbursed up to $20,000 for costs associated with allowing adult-use sales, which can help cover the cost of staff time spent working on the issue. She said the state so far has returned more than $150,000 to municipalities to help defray the costs.

Roberts said municipalities can allow adult-use retail sales, cultivation, manufacturing and testing.

“Local government has a lot of tools in their tool belt to design and build a local cannabis program that is specific to the needs of their community,” she said. “If you don’t want to take a cannonball off the highest diving board into the cannabis economy, you don’t have to. You can dip a toe in. You can really create a bespoke experience here in Augusta.”

Last year, Hudak said, legal marijuana sales in Maine generated $10 million in excise taxes and $17.5 million in sales tax for the state.