More than 90 percent of Maine towns and cities still don’t allow recreational marijuana stores, even as sales in the industry have steadily grown since they started nearly a year ago.
While Brewer and Orono are both on track to allow recreational cannabis stores sometime soon, they’ll join only three other Penobscot County communities that allow such shops — Bangor, Medway and tiny Stacyville with just 380 residents. Etna allows growing operations but not retail stores.
Across the state, only 47 of Maine’s approximately 500 towns, cities and plantations have opted in to allow recreational marijuana retailers. Fewer than a third of Maine residents, just 29 percent, live in those communities, though many more live near them, according to data from the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy and the 2020 U.S. Census.
The small number of towns allowing sales presents one hurdle to further growth for the industry, which has only been able to sell recreational weed since last October and posted its highest sales figure yet, $10.2 million, in August. A cannabis industry group acknowledged the slow growth in towns signing onto allow retail shops.
Some of the resistance to allowing marijuana shops comes from many Mainers’ association of marijuana with harder drugs that have ravaged their communities, including opioids and methamphetamine. That association became clear over the summer when Glenburn’s planning board considered a greenhouse that would grow medical marijuana, an operation municipalities cannot deny under state law.
Rather than opt into recreational sales, several communities have passed ordinances banning the development of retail marijuana stores, including Bradford, Corinna, Corinth, Dixmont, Glenburn and Millinocket.
Many of these bans came in the years after Maine voters legalized the drug for recreational purposes, including Carmel’s prohibition that took effect in 2017 That town’s ban came after Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton recommended it to the town’s select board in December 2016, saying that there would be “unforeseen circumstances” arising from the legalization of marijuana, according to town minutes.
While the referendum legalizing marijuana narrowly passed across Maine in 2016, it was with no help from Penobscot County: 54 percent of the county’s residents voted no. Only Bangor, Lakeville, Maxfield, Old Town, Orono and Webster Plantation favored the measure.
Also voting no in that referendum was Dover-Foxcroft in neighboring Piscataquis County.
Five years later, the question of bringing recreational shops to town will be put to voters in November, select board member Stephen Grammont said. The question came up as a town committee looked at reworking its zoning and land use ordinances, he said.
“The measure on the ballot is to see if people want the activity at all,” Grammont said.
While the referendum won’t be officially binding, the town’s select board will be “obligated” to follow its conclusions, Grammont said.
Dover-Foxcroft is the largest town in Maine’s most conservative county. Yet, he said, it was unclear how residents felt about marijuana.
“The weird thing about Maine is that it’s conservative but also libertarian,” said Grammont, who noted that a wide range of political movements had flourished in Maine, from the temperance movement to gun rights.
For many communities, it has taken a proposal for a retail store to persuade them to opt in. Medway, which legalized recreational stores by town vote in March 2020, has one recreational marijuana shop and is bound to have another if residents vote to permit medical shops later this month, Town Clerk Katherine Lee said.
More towns could opt in over time if they get similar requests as long as such requests are “economically feasible,” she said.
As Maine’s marijuana industry looks to expand, getting more towns to opt in is essential, said Joel Pepin, president of the Maine Cannabis Industry Association. While he noted that Brewer had recently taken the necessary steps to opt in, movement had been fairly slow across the state, he said.
A fear of the unknown is a significant reason, Pepin said. In addition, he said, some municipalities might not see much in it for them. Excise and sales taxes from retail stores go entirely to the state rather than to the communities where they’re located.
Though he wants to see more towns, cities and plantations sign on, he was optimistic about how the recreational industry had done since sales began in October. He noted that prices, once an issue for the new industry, had come down.
“It takes time for stigma to change, and it takes time for operators to jump in and participate in the market,” Pepin said. “But I mean, the market’s been launched now for a year and it seems to have already made a tremendous amount of progress.”
Stacyville approved its present marijuana policies during town meetings in March and August 2019.
Select board member Alvin Theriault said there was no opposition whatsoever. Residents were attracted to the economic prospects: A large-scale grower had considered doing business in Stacyville, but later decided not to due to state regulations, Theriault said.
“We don’t have any industry here. We don’t have anything,” Theriault said. “So why not?”
One shop has since opened in Stacyville — The Green Moose Smoke Shop — though it only sells products to those enrolled in Maine’s medical marijuana program.
Theriault, who used to encounter marijuana when it was illegal during his decades as a game warden, said people would smoke marijuana whether communities allowed its sale or not.
“It’s out there,” Theriault said. “You might as well collect taxes on it.”