The City Council on July 17 approved a first reading of a temporary ban on some new medical marijuana businesses that previously were permitted in the manner of shops or doctors' offices.

The moratorium, which would prohibit for 180 days any new caregiver retail stores, registered dispensaries, marijuana testing facilities and manufacturing facilities, comes in response to recent changes in the state's medical marijuana law.

If given final approval, the moratorium would be retroactive to July 9. That's the date the Legislature adopted LD 1539, which amends the 1999 Medical Marijuana Act to require that towns pass ordinances to allow certain types of medical marijuana businesses.

Maine Municipal Association has recommended that towns use a moratorium period to consider whether medical marijuana businesses should be allowed, whether they should be limited to certain areas, what standards should apply to them and what effect they might have on future recreational establishments, should those be allowed.

On July 17, City Planner Wayne Marshall told the City Council he had received inquiries from four individuals interested in operating a retail medical marijuana caregiver facility.

While state law now effectively bans new retail caregivers and other medical marijuana establishments in towns that haven't specifically allowed them, Marshall said a moratorium on top of that would head off legal complications.

"Even though we do not have the enabling statute, if someone submitted an application, they have standing until we change the law," he said. That could be problematic if the business were proposed for a location where it is later deemed not to be allowed.

Marshall said state regulators will be drafting rules for the revised law, which he found to be vague with some details. He gave the example of setbacks between medical marijuana caregivers and schools and whether they are measured from the building or the property line.

A second reading on the moratorium will be held at the City Council's Aug 7 meeting.

"There's enough ambiguity out there that we could use a little time to sort things out," he said.

Today there are two retail medical marijuana caregivers in the city — New World Organics, which has operated for several years at the Wentworth Building on Waldo Avenue, and 1 Mill, a new business at 1 Mill Lane with marijuana-themed merchandise and a separate caregiver office.

Under LD 1539, those two shops would be grandfathered from the new rules and would be able to continue operating regardless of the rules the city ultimately adopts.

Paul McCarrier, owner of 1 Mill and a longtime cannabis advocate, said in a letter to the city that while he normally opposes these types of moratoriums, he thinks this one will head off problems seen in other medical cannabis states, including "a proliferation of storefronts in residential areas and bad actors who threaten legal action if the municipality attempts to regulate them though a normal planning and code process."

Councilor Mike Hurley urged for a quick resolution to the question, noting that medical marijuana carries a residual stigma of an illegal drug, despite having been legal for years.

Councilor Neal Harkness said that same stigma could yield an opportunity for Belfast because the medical marijuana industry is growing but remains unwelcome in many places.