Unity residents debate whether recreational marijuana would help or hinder town

By Madeline St. Amour, centralmaine.com staff writer | Mar 09, 2017

Residents were divided about a proposed ordinance that would prohibit people from starting recreational marijuana establishments in town.

While those who support the ban say recreational marijuana doesn’t have a place in Unity, others say it’s a senseless ban on potential businesses and tax revenue.

The discussion among the 50 people or so who attended Wednesday evening’s public hearing on the ordinance was civil, and most people seemed to be against the complete ban.

The moderator, Don Newell, took a straw poll at the end of the meeting to see who would support banning each type of establishment. The vast majority of people — 40 out of 48 — would vote to ban social clubs, while only 23 would ban retail stores. For cultivation, manufacturing and testing facilities, 17, 18 and 16 people, respectively, said they would vote to ban them, while the majority did not want to ban them.

Residents will have a chance to vote on the proposed ordinance at Town Meeting at 10 a.m. March 25 at the Unity Elementary School gymnasium.

Most Unity residents at the polls in November voted against Question 1, which passed statewide and made it legal under state law for adults 21 or older to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for recreational use. It also legalized recreational businesses, such as retail stores and social clubs.

The ordinance draft was proposed originally by Charles Schaefer and a small committee he worked with. They modeled the ordinance after Oakland’s prohibition ordinance, banning all establishments, including product manufacturing facilities and testing facilities.

Ruth Swanson, who helped with the proposal, said people have to ask themselves what they value about Unity.

“Now, the Downeast magazine names the 14 best places to live in Maine. Well, what do you know, Unity, Maine, was one of them,” Swanson said. “Do you think marijuana stores and social clubs would put Unity squarely on the map as a destination?”

A panel organized by the town to discuss the issue and answer questions spoke first at the meeting.

Sen. Michael Thibodeau, president of the state Senate, said the Legislature has “a lot of work to do” on the topic.

“So much of everything that we do is going to be affected by this,” he said, adding that legislators have a lot of questions to answer.

Dawson Julia, one of the owners East Coast CDBs, a medical marijuana caregiver business that opened in 2014 in Unity, said he wasn’t “a big fan of this bill.” Julia is worried about small-business owners and caregivers in Maine and the out-of-state competition they may face, he said.

Still, he said Maine should take advantage of the industry. While he isn’t a fan of social clubs, which essentially would be bars for recreational marijuana, he doesn’t see the point in banning testing, cultivation or processing facilities.

When asked whether he would have interest in opening a retail store, Julia said he is interested in opening a cultivation and retail store because of concern that the medical program will be “stomped out.”

The chairman of Mainers Protecting Our Youth and a leader in the No on 1 campaign, Scott Gagnon, said the decision the town makes will “make a big influence” on younger residents.

“Wherever you see the perception of risk amongst our youth go down, you see the use go up, and vice versa,” he said.

Gagnon also said that this is “not the marijuana of the ’70s” and that the potency will only increase with commercialization.

Lt. Matthew Curtis, from Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, was also on the panel, but he said the sheriff's office doesn’t have an official stance on the issue.

A number of people who spoke said that banning marijuana was hypocritical, considering the health effects of alcohol.

“There is a very dangerous, addictive drug that threatens our community every day,” Trevanion Grenfell said, “and you can go to the bar and drink it every day.”

The statement garnered applause from the room, as many did later on.

Grenfell went on to say that if the town wanted to be “honest,” it had to either ban bars or legalize marijuana.

However, another resident said he grew up in East Millinocket in the 1980s and watched people go from smoking marijuana to taking pills and harder drugs.

Some people said the ordinance is too broad and would prevent Unity from getting businesses that have nothing to do with consumption of marijuana.

If people voted down this ordinance, a new one could be crafted that would ban shops and social clubs, for example, but not other facilities.

“I don’t think you can draw an assumption that just because this town voted no (in November) that they all voted no because they are anti-marijuana,” Alicia McCormick said. “I’m live and let live. It’s your choice.”

While she doesn’t use marijuana, McCormick said, she doesn’t support the ordinance proposal because it is “presumptuous.”

Joe Saltalamachia, a member of the Economic Development Committee, pointed out that this warrant would ban a testing laboratory, which could use millions of dollars of equipment and create high-paying jobs.

Others argued that marijuana legalization does not match the “old-fashioned values” that are a hallmark of Unity.

“What does dope have to do with old-fashioned values?” one woman said.

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