ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Commissioners met with Maine officials Tuesday to find out more information about “opting in” to allow commercial marijuana enterprises in the unorganized territories. The discussion took place via the online meeting platform Zoom.
There was no resolution reached and no action was taken.
However, Commissioner John Wombacher chided his fellow board members about their attitude regarding marijuana-related commercial activity in the territories.
Both Commissioner Bill Clark and Commissioner Paul Paradis had said previously they would not support “adult use” marijuana operations in the unorganized territories.
Wombacher reminded the board that it has spent time in the past year working on economic development in the unorganized territories.
“I find it kind of funny that we hear marijuana and we start clutching our pearls,” Wombacher said. “If it was a microbrewery, you’d be all for it. I think it’s old school to think marijuana is somehow different from a liquor license.”
“I don’t think there’s one person on this Zoom call who hasn’t had alcohol negatively affect a family member or their life,” Wombacher said. “My father was an alcoholic. My mom, I remember holding her hand while she took her last breath as a smoker. I understand how drugs affect lives, I get it.”
The commissioner from Bucksport said he didn’t agree with treating marijuana as worse than substances that have already been established in society.
Medical marijuana dispensaries are “all over the place,” Wombacher said. “And you pretty much don’t need anything to get it.”
“It would be a shame not to encourage a business,” the commissioner said. “If you’re opposed to retail establishments, I get that, but approve manufacturing or cultivation, processing and testing for the UT.”
Clark described Wombacher’s comments as “eloquent.”
“It’s still an emotional issue,” Clark said, especially for someone who has spent a career in law enforcement. “It’s so difficult for me to get into the 21st century when it comes to pot. I become emotional when it comes to those issues.”
The Maine Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) reviews applications for developments in the unorganized territories.
Clark asked Naomi Kirk-Lawlor, a senior planner with the LUPC, what kind of interest there had been in other territories.
“I know it’s been under discussion in some cases,” said Kirk-Lawlor. “Sandy River and Dallas Plantations have put forward plans and asked for opt-ins, but it hasn’t occurred yet.”
To date there have been no opt ins for adult use in the unorganized territories.
“Let’s say hypothetically we did opt in for some version of the adult use — if we opted in on one of them — what further obligations or management does the county itself have to do?” Wombacher asked.
The business owner would still have to get local approval from the county commissioners as well as a land use permit from the LUPC before the owner could go to the Office of Marijuana Policy for a license, Kirk-Lawlor said.
“What permit would they be seeking from us for a business permit in the UT?” Clark asked.
“Similar to a liquor license,” said Millard Billings, unorganized territories supervisor for Hancock County.
“John, your answer is we can never really wash our hands of this,” Clark said.
“We won’t have many applications,” Wombacher replied. “Yeah, there’s a chance every year we could see a couple people coming to us wanting to apply.”
Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane asked what kind of revenue the county might see from allowing a marijuana business.
“These areas are very remote,” Kane said. If there was a business and the county needed to hire an additional officer to handle complaints, “does it generate any income” for the county?
David Heidrich, director of engagement and community outreach for the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, replied that there is no direct revenue to municipalities.
Clark recalled that the county tried to assess law enforcement fees to the unorganized territories, but the state rejected the request.
The marijuana discussion began last fall when an unorganized territory resident expressed interest in starting a medical marijuana dispensary. The commissioners also learned Tuesday that the county doesn’t need to opt in to allow medical marijuana clinics in the territories. Any such enterprise would be between the business owner and the Land Use Planning Commission and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.