Thursday, June 17, 2010

Maine Public Broadcasting Network

Portland City Council Urged to Reject Pot Dispensary Moratorium

06/17/2010 Reported By: Susan Sharon

Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion joined the Maine Civil Liberties Union and supporters of Maine's medical marijuana law on the steps of Portland City Hall this morning to call on city council members to reject a six-month moratorium on dispensaries. The groups say the proposal also includes a provision that would prohibit caregivers from distributing medical marijuana to patients, something they've been permitted to do for 11 years. That could serve as the basis for a legal challenge if a moratorium is adopted. But passage of the moratorium now appears unlikely.

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Maine voters authorized the use of medical marijuana for qualified patients more than a decade ago. Last fall, they also gave their approval for a non-profit dispensary system, and did so in large numbers. Portland residents were some of the most supportive. Portland city councilor Dave Marshall says they endorsed the measure by a margin of 75 percent. And he says they've waited long enough to implement the law without another six-month delay that a proposed moratorium would bring.

"That's why I'm sponsoring an amendment to city code to permit medicinal marijuana dispensaries in Portland's downtown business zones. The city of Portland must respect the patients' rights and the will of the voters," Marshall said at a news conference this morning.

Marshall says he has three co-sponsors of his amendment: Councilor Jill Duson, Councilor Dory Waxman and Councilor Kevin Donoghue. Councilor Dan Skolnik says he also supports the zoning amendment.

"We don't need a moratorium," Skolnik says. "We can identify and cure any zoning problems that we have in this city with regard to opening up a dispensary without a six-month process."

Portland Mayor Nick Mavodones agrees that a six-month moratorium would take too long. And he says he's leaning toward support of Marshall's amendment, which would appear to have enough votes to pass.

"Certainly we want to ensure that our local zoning in Portland meets the requirements or allows a dispensary, and we'll have to deal with that," Mavodones says. "But I think by sending this directly over to the planning board, I think we can solve that and by doing so we can meet the medical needs of the many people in Cumberland County should the dispensary be located here."

State law permits up to eight dispensaries in eight regions of the state. Several communities have passed moratoriums on medical marijuana dispensaries. Portland's moratorium would also prevent caregivers from growing medical marijuana for authorized patients, and patients from growing it for themselves. This is something they've been legally allowed to do under state law for 11 years.

Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion says patients shouldn't be burdened by geography when it comes to accessing their medicine. "Your ability to provide care to someone else or to stay healthy shouldn't be a consequence of what community you live in," he says. "I think if care providers or dispensary clinic organizations want to provide those services here in the city we should exercise some leadership and make it happen."

Alysia Melnik, an attorney with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, says there may be another reason for councilors to reject the moratorium. She says it may be more restrictive than state law. "We certainly see that as a problem. The law that was passed by the Legislature permits appropriate regulations by localities around dispensaries. It says nothing in there about allowing regulation or prohibition of growing by patients or their caregivers, which this moratorium does."

Melnik says this could be used as the basis for a legal challenge if the moratorium moves forward. According to a city of Portland spokeswoman, the moratorium was drafted at the request of Councilor John Anton, who was unable to be reached for comment for this story.

Meanwhile, at least one city councilor says she's on the fence about the moratorium and the zoning amendment. "I....It depends. It depends on what's in Dave's proposal," says Councilor Cheryl Leeman.

As a breast cancer survivor herself, Leeman says she supports the use of medical marijuana to treat patients. Her only question is: where to treat them in the city of Portland. "If I'm not happy with the details of what he's presenting, than maybe the only other option will be the six months."

Mayor Nick Mavodones says in the event that the zoning amendment fails to pass, he'll ask that the proposed moratorium be shorter than six months and will move to strip out language that prevents patients and caregivers from growing medical marijuana. The council will take up the issue Monday night.

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