Caribou bucks its neighbors to ban retail marijuana shops

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While many neighboring communities have finalized or looked at creating their own retail marijuana regulations, the city of Caribou, ME, isn’t.

Any retail marijuana stores geared toward the general public, including those that only sell medical marijuana, cannot be developed within city limits.

Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison reviewed the city’s marijuana ordinance, which only allows nonprofit dispensaries and cultivation facilities registered for medical marijuana, when the Caribou Planning Board met recently.

Caribou’s decision to not invest in retail marijuana businesses is in stark contrast with neighboring communities. Presque Isle first approved the sale and manufacture of recreational pot in 2020 and has since seen four medical shops, two recreational stores and one cultivation facility open. That city’s ordinance specifies that shops cannot be within 1,000 feet of a pre-existing public or private school and must adhere to strict zoning rules.

The topic has come up among Caribou officials because of a permit application submitted in December for a proposed medical marijuana dispensary caregiver center that would be located in the former Pizza Hut building at 149 Bennett Drive.

In January, Murchison told the planning board he was concerned about the application because the entrepreneur’s business description seemed similar to a retail store.

After researching Maine’s retail marijuana laws, Murchison said during the meeting on Thursday that nothing will happen unless the City Council decides retail marijuana would be a worthy economic investment.  

He said the City Council will need to opt into the state law allowing retail marijuana — referring to the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act and the Marijuana Legalization Act, which require that municipalities grant approval for any retail stores.

There are two medical marijuana dispensaries in Caribou: Safe Alternatives on Presque Isle Road and Richardson Remedies on Bog Road. Unlike retail stores, dispensaries specifically cater to medical patients, who must receive a medical marijuana card from their doctor before purchasing products.

Councilor John Morrill, who attended Thursday’s planning board meeting, said there are no plans to reconsider the city’s marijuana rules.

The planning board took no action regarding the current marijuana ordinance or the proposed dispensary center. Murchison said he wanted members to be aware of state laws in case the council ever decided to allow retail development.

Planning Board Chair Dan Bagley was the only member to express his disapproval of retail marijuana stores, while others focused their questions on the Maine laws.

“This is an example where being proactive is not a good thing,” Bagley said, referring to discussions on the city’s marijuana ordinance.

“I hope [retail marijuana] doesn’t happen in the city.”

Surrounding communities have been more reluctant to tap into the marijuana business, though several have established ordinances.

Washburn’s ordinance, passed by voters last June, regulates both medical and recreational stores and allows compliant operators to exchange medical licenses for recreational.

Limestone has begun discussing a marijuana business ordinance, but has not decided whether it would cover medical and recreational, Town Manager Tara Henderson said last week.

While a change in mindset in Caribou may take a while, several people said that interest in marijuana sales is not going away.

Board member Stephen Wentworth referenced potential legislation that would allow recreational stores to deliver to homes across Maine, even in towns and cities that have not opted in to Maine’s adult use laws.

There has been increased interest from local residents about starting retail businesses, Murchison said. Like other industries with regulated substances, including alcohol, the status of marijuana in Maine is a sign of changing times, he said.

“I remember when communities wouldn’t sell beer on Sundays,” Murchison said.

“Eventually money speaks more loudly and people want to get in on the industry.”

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