Down the road from Belfast, the town of Northport allows recreational marijuana sales. Here, local cannabis cultivator Simon Lydon stopped in to the adult-use marijuana shop Sweet Relief in Oct. 2020, on the first day the state allowed recreational marijuana sales. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Right now, there are no recreational cannabis growing operations allowed within the city of Belfast, but that could change soon.

City Councilors waded into the discussion of adult-use marijuana during their regular council meeting Tuesday night, a conversation that was inspired by a company’s proposal to build a large marijuana cultivation facility in the old Moss Tent building on Northport Avenue.

The company, Origins Cannabis, approached city staff earlier this year with its plan to grow as much as 20,000 square feet of “mature plant canopy.” But in order to do that, the city would have to amend its zoning ordinance to allow for adult-use marijuana facilities.

Councilors seemed generally amenable to making the change and having Belfast opt-in, at least in terms of allowing marijuna grow facilities in the city.  

“I don’t think it’s the job of the council to tell people whether or not they can engage in legal businesses within the city unless there’s an extraordinary reason [to do so],” Councilor Neal Harkness said. “It’s not for us to decide whether. It’s up to us to decide where.”

Councilor Paul Dean agreed.

“It’s the law of the land now,” he said.  

But not every community in the state has taken this approach. After Maine voters legalized recreational marijuana in November 2016, the state adopted a framework for recreational sales. According to that framework, municipalities have to opt-in to adult-use marijuana, which allows businesses to grow, process, test or sell marijuana within their borders.

In September, nearly a year after  legal recreational marijuana sales were first allowed in the state, more than 90 percent of Maine towns and cities still did not allow stores to sell the now-legal drug.

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.

Among communities that have opted in for adult-use marijuana are Northport, just south of Belfast, which allows retail, growing, manufacturing and testing, and Searsport to the north, which allows growing and testing.

In Belfast, the ordinance amendments drafted by the Belfast Planning Board only address adult use cultivation, not sales. Such cultivation activity would only be allowed outside the Route 1 bypass and away from the city’s downtown district.

The board specified that small-scale — less than 2,000 square feet of mature plant canopy — and nursery cultivation would be permitted in the rural zoning districts outside the bypass. Large-scale cultivation would be allowed in the Route 1 south and Searsport Avenue commercial districts. The planning board also recommended following the guideline of having a 500-foot setback from schools and daycare centers for all adult-use marijuana activities.

City Planner Jon Boynton told councilors that marijuana cultivators, such as Origins Cannabis, will be required to provide a security plan and also detail how they will address concerns such as odors.

“We have required them to show us how they’re going to meet the state requirements,” Boynton said.

City Councilor Mike Hurley said that the pungent odor of marijuana can be problematic.

“It’s really intense,” he said. “It’s got to be handled correctly.”

A second reading on the ordinance amendments has been scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 21.

BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.