FRENCHVILLE – A 61–32 vote Wednesday night put a temporary hold on Safe Alternatives’ plans, as community members, filling nearly every chair in the room, enacted a moratorium on the state’s northernmost medical marijuana dispensary before operations could begin.
Leo Trudel, principal officer and one of the directors of the non-profit organization approved in June by the Department of Health and Human Services to open a dispensary in the northern district, said that now the vote is in, he will continue to work with the town toward a solution.
“We’re going to listen to what they have to say,” Trudel said after the vote had been cast. Trudel said he had already spoken to his attorney, and that he intended to continue to work toward the organizations’ goal of opening the dispensary. “We’re going to sit back and come up with a strategy to move forward,” he said, adding that the non-profit would continue to grow, whether in Frenchville or in some other community.
The board of selectmen’s decision to propose a moratorium came following a combined educational forum and town meeting on Oct. 19, during which the subject was raised by Percy Thibeault, chairman of the board.
The 180-day moratorium, now in effect, is retroactive to Aug. 10, the date Trudel first approached the board with the proposed facility. This means the organization will be under moratorium for another 90 days, until Feb. 10, 2011. The wording of the moratorium states in part that because of concerns about traffic, street safety, an increase in criminal activity and possibility of illicit sale, all plans, permits and operations for the dispensary in Frenchville cannot proceed for another three months. It also states that no person can be a primary caregiver in the town of Frenchville for the next 90 days, and that the selectmen reserve the right to extend the moratorium for another 180 days at the end of this 90-day period.
The intent of the moratorium, explained Gary Picard, member of the board, is to allow time for the board to form a committee to look at dispensary rules and regulations.
“If you’re voting to make this thing go away, that’s not how it works,” Picard told residents. “A yes vote for the moratorium is not an outright ban – it can’t be done.”
Thibeault, who also attended the meeting, said that when speaking with Catherine Cobb, director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, he was told that if the town did not feel the facility was secure enough they could request more security at the dispensary and growing facility, both planned by Safe Alternatives to be located at 479 U.S. Rte. 1 in Frenchville.
“We don’t believe the sheriff and state police are not doing their job – they’re doing their job,” Thibeault said.
One audience member mentioned a “trooper-in-residence program” in which a trooper would live in Frenchville, suggesting that the town could apply for this if they felt the need for additional police presence.
Moderator Paul Bernier allowed 45 minutes of discussion, with questions from audience members touching on reasons they were both for and against the dispensary opening in their community. One resident, Mark Jerkins, held up a can of beer, then several prescription medications, and then he held up what appeared to be a joint, or marijuana cigarette. He stated death statistics for alcohol, tobacco, suicides, and homicides, all of which he said were higher than deaths attributed to all illicit drug use combined.
“One of these,” he said, holding up the joint, “can replace five medications that can kill me.”
Others chimed in on their safety concerns and on the cost of hiring more law enforcement to patrol the area.
Phil Levesque, town manager, said that he had confirmed with Cobb the answers to many questions residents had at the last meeting, including that it is legal to have the growing and dispensing sites on the same property, that Safe Alternatives would pay real-estate taxes, and that the non-profit had “passed all the tests, as far as the state is concerned.”
Trudel asked to speak; however, through a required vote by registered voters, with two-thirds approval needed to allow a non-resident to speak, he was denied permission.
The establishment of state-registered dispensaries requires that one dispensary be approved for each of eight public health districts in Maine, in the first year after the medical marijuana law was amended in April of this year. Safe Alternatives, whose board of directors includes Leo Trudel, Julie Trudel, Rep. John Martin, Diana White, Ph. D, Jean English, Ph. D, Jared Cyr, and Aaron Cyr, was approved in June as the sole dispensary for the northernmost district of DHHS.
The updated law stated that each applicant must submit a detailed application, be non-profit, have an annual registration of $15,000, and have strict safety and security regulations with inspections by representatives of the state. Safe Alternatives did meet all of these requirements at the Frenchville facility, including passing a recent state security inspection, according to Levesque.
The law also included the provision that all registered patients, registered caregivers or primary caregivers, and officers, board members, and employees of dispensaries must carry registry identification cards. The registered patient fee is $100, or $75 if the patient is a member of MaineCare, the law says, and a patient may possess 2.5 ounces or six live marijuana plants. The organization met all state requirements. Frenchville residents carried the moratorium with a two-thirds vote, cast in secret ballot.
When the results were read aloud, some residents applauded, while others appeared disappointed or hung their heads. Voters then passed another article to authorize the board of selectmen to draft a “site planning review ordinance,” due to the proposed dispensary and also to the town’s current lack of zoning, to bring new activities to the public.
“The people spoke. That’s what we wanted,” said Thibeault, as people gathered their coats to leave. “We feel very much in transparency, and that’s what we saw here tonight.”
Ross Paradis, a supporter of the proposed Frenchville medical marijuana dispensary and advocate for patients’ rights, felt differently. A former legislator and longtime Frenchville resident, he shook his head as the meeting came to a close.
“Some days I’m proud of the town – this day is not one of them,” Paradis said.