In this Dec. 13, 2017, file photo, a marijuana plant grows under artificial light at an indoor facility in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Four years ago, Maine voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana. Yet, there are still no marijuana retailers in the state. The industry’s rollout since 2016 has been impeded by a number of legislative and regulatory twists and turns, including a gubernatorial veto. But few, if any, in this emerging sector anticipated the latest obstacle.

In June 2019, the state adopted rules for adult-use cannabis businesses, and in March issued its first conditional licenses. The hope was to launch retail sales this spring. But the pandemic happened.

The state is waiting for approval from local city and town governments, said Erik Gundersen, director of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy.

“With the local authorization piece, the second stop in the licensing process, towns and cities across the state are really closed,” Gundersen said. “Even though 87 conditional licenses are out there, the local authorization forms aren’t coming back at a volume where we can actually start the program.”

In order for retailers to set up shop, the host community has to opt in and enact ordinances. More than 40 have done so, but before the marketplace opens for business, Gundersen said he wants to be sure that there are enough stores to meet the demand.

Maine’s largest city has not approved a local ordinance. Portland is proposing to cap the total number of retail establishments, both medical and adult, at 20 and use a point system to determine which companies get retail licenses.

Keri-Jon Wilson, who co-owns Pot and Pan in Portland, wants one of those 20 licenses. Her company manufactures medical cannabis edibles and is seeking both an adult-use retail license and a manufacturing license.

“I think we all knew that it was going to be difficult in Portland, as we’ve watched the landscape change,” Wilson said. “Obviously, you know, it’s a little … disappointing this can’t be a free market.”

While she believes it’s good that the city is being selective, Wilson said it’s hard on potential applicants who have already made a lot of investments, but have no idea whether they will get a license.

There’s enough concern about Portland’s cap that opponents are considering a ballot initiative to elimate it, should it end up as part of the city’s final plan. There’s been talk about collecting signatures to get the issue on the November ballot, said David Boyer, a consultant who ran the successful adult-use marijuana campaigns in Portland and statewide.

“Seems like it might be firming up and there’s a little kitchen table forming,” Boyer said. “And, you know, we’re confident that it’ll pass. It’s easy to explain to the voter that, you know, that we just want a fair market and not a capped market.”

The Portland City Council could vote on its local marijuana ordinance at its May 18 meeting. In a letter last month to stakeholders, Gundersen said he is still unable to provide any concrete timelines for the launch of recreational marijuana sales in Maine.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

Watch: Advocates and opponents debate marijuana legalization

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