CAMDEN, Maine — Deciding how to vote on allowing recreational marijuana retailers in downtown Camden was a struggle from the start, Meg Quijano said.
Quijano owns The Smiling Cow, a gift shop on Main Street. She’s tapped into the business community here, and most of the people she spoke to planned to vote no. While she did not want a marijuana store opening up right next door, she also didn’t think they needed to be blocked altogether.
“I don’t think the town has a right to deny a particular business because they don’t happen to like the product that they’re selling,” Quijano said.
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She was a reluctant yes on one question, but she was in the minority. Approximately two-thirds of Camden voters rejected two questions on the local ballot June 13 that would have allowed up to two recreational or medical marijuana retailers downtown, showing how even culturally liberal towns are struggling with legalization after Maine voters narrowly passed it in 2016.
Camden voted in favor of it then. But it is among the roughly 90 percent of cities and towns in Maine that still don’t allow marijuana retailers after a divisive campaign that was notable for heavy-handed rhetoric from opponents and left proponents wondering about the wealthy tourism town’s reputation for elitism. Some sat out the vote entirely.
An ad taken out by Camden Cares, a group that organized against questions pushed by marijuana businesses, in the Camden Herald’s May 12 edition began: “Did I ever think Camden Residents would be voting on whether we want drug dealers in our town?”
“Camden is often called the ‘Jewel of the Midcoast’ and if we open pot shops in Camden, we will be rolling the dice on our future economic vibrancy both as a popular tourist destination and place for people to live and raise kids,” the group said in a June 1 letter to the editor of the Courier-Gazette.
The issue first came up in March, after Camden residents Ari Meil and Mark Benjamin brought forward the proposed amendments that would have allowed them to open a recreational marijuana store in town. Town officials ultimately put it on the ballot after residents raised concerns about allowing the stores during a public comment session.
Meil and Benjamin, who also own Botany, a recreational marijuana store in Rockland, originally envisioned a subtle, high-end store catering to tourists and year-round residents. They expected pushback but thought a few signs and conversations with naysayers would be enough to reach a compromise.
What surprised them wasn’t the outcome of the vote, but rather the “visceral and mean-spirited” fight that took place leading up to it, Meil said. Opposition ranged from concerns over potential underage use to a feeling that marijuana retailers would negatively change the town’s character.
Leading that charge was Camden Cares, a nonprofit organization formed recently in direct opposition to the potential marijuana store. Jordan Cohen, a tech marketer and the organization’s president, said the vote wasn’t meant to be a referendum on marijuana legalization, but it shows that people should have an influence in how they want their community to look and feel.
“It seemed like a foregone conclusion that every town [in Maine] is going to have marijuana shops,” he said. “This vote in Camden shows that’s not true, that towns have the ability to make their own decisions and people can have a voice in this,”
Cohen and his organization believe plenty of nearby towns allow retail marijuana if people want it, but bringing those stores into Camden would set a bad precedent, particularly for young people and tourists.
Some visitors walking past the Camden Village Green, like Larry and Alice Aguilar from Massachusetts, agree. They feel some more rural communities in their state have been swamped with recreational stores and that the potential for substance misuse is serious.
That’s what Heidi Newman, owner of the Small Wonder Gallery and Frameshop, was worried about when she decided to vote no on both articles. She isn’t against recreational use in general, but she is very much against bringing stores to Camden.
“It’s going to keep people away,” she said.
Her concern was that families might end up avoiding Camden, and that didn’t sit right with her. But the decision to reject marijuana retailers sends its own message about the town as well, Quijano said.
“We have a reputation for being elitist,” Quijano said of the town. “I feel pretty strongly that we need to consider that there are other points of view.”
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The debate was so heated that the only way to avoid fanning the flames was to stay out of the debate entirely, said Sondra Hamilton, owner of Zoot Coffee in Camden.
She didn’t allow signs for or against the shops, and said she wanted the cafe to remain a neutral space. She has friends who voted on both sides of the issue, and when it came down to making a decision on the ballot, Hamilton abstained. Although she recognizes there was passionate disagreement surrounding the vote, she’s optimistic that wounds will heal.
“The people in our community are really great about separating their political and ideological viewpoints,” Hamilton said. “People on both sides continue to be friends and neighbors.”