By Hunter Dublin
Maine is far and away from the most enthusiastic about cannabis among the dozens of US states that have approved some kind of medicinal marijuana over the last few decades.
More than 105,000 Mainers filed for medical marijuana certificates last year, accounting for over 8% of the state's 1.36 million-person population in 2020. In Massachusetts, 1.4 percent of citizens are card-carrying patients, which is far more normal.
A crucial feature driving Maine's medical program's appeal — regulators' hands-off policy — is its most contentious.
Maine marijuana and law enforcement officials have repeatedly pressed for stricter regulations on the rogue industry. They claim that its lack of testing, tracking, and labeling requirements exposes patients to contaminated cannabis and makes it easy for producers to divert inventory out the back door.
However, the state's thousands of small, locally-owned medical operators and their legislative allies have so far thwarted all attempts to address those concerns, most recently passing legislation requiring Maine's Office of Cannabis Policy to oversee any regulatory changes passed by the State House.
Exasperated regulators at the FDA are returning to the drawing board for the third time in two years. Saying this week that they would begin a statewide "listening tour" to gather comments before attempting to craft new medical marijuana regulations for the third time.
"When we tell regulators in other states that we have testing for [recreational] but not medical, they look at us funny," said Erik Gundersen, Maine's marijuana czar. "It's a strange, gray space to be in." But we recognize the widespread fear of change. We want a robust medical program that permits operators to keep doing what they're doing."
The fight involves one of the country's most unusual legal marijuana markets, dominated not by investor-backed dispensary firms but by so-called caregivers: small, informal growing and manufacturing operations that were originally intended to provide medical cannabis to a handful of nearby patients.
While caregivers in Massachusetts and most other states are not allowed to make a profit and typically work with a few seriously ill patients they know personally, many of Maine's 2,800-plus caregivers have evolved into pseudo-dispensaries that stand alongside a much smaller number of more traditionally-regulated retailers selling both medical and recreational marijuana.
State law enables caregivers to accept out-of-state medical marijuana cards. The stores they were allowed to create beginning in 2018 rapidly proved popular with patients around New England for their grassroots ethos, dirt-cheap rates, and diverse selection of handmade items. As a result, marijuana has surpassed potatoes and blueberries to become Maine's most valued crop.
Caregivers and supporters of the industry are extremely protective of it, claiming that it symbolizes Maine's locavore, artisanal character and serves as a counterweight to the unnecessary over-regulation of cannabis in most other states.
According to Alysia Melnick, an attorney for the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, the new legislation requiring officials to back down was "a clear repudiation of the effort to govern this business as if we're a bunch of dangerous, ne'er-do-well drug traffickers who can be brushed under the rug." "The state cannot take our tax dollars and all the employees we produce and then sell us to large out-of-state firms – we were not going to stand for it."
Larger corporate operators in Maine's nascent and strictly regulated recreational industry are less enthusiastic. They've applauded attempts to bring caregivers to heel, claiming that the gap in standards endangers the public and unjustly eats into their revenue, including locations in neighboring states like Massachusetts.
Regulators are therefore caught in the middle. Gundersen told the Globe in an interview that he believes a compromise is still possible. However, lab testing and product monitoring are essential components of any well-run marijuana industry.
According to a December research commissioned by the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy, the state has eroded more of its illegal cannabis market than most, with 64 percent of all cannabis ingested coming from a legal source, despite the instability.
This, according to Gundersen, demonstrates that marijuana firms may flourish while complying with statutory testing and tracking. He added that most recreational operators in Maine now are locals who began as caretakers, despite expectations that stiffer laws and a federal court ruling overturning a residency requirement would allow larger out-of-state firms to dominate the industry.
On the other hand, caregivers believe the data proves that an economical, easy, and weakly regulated market with minimal up-front expenses for entrepreneurs is the quickest way to eliminate illegal sales.
"Competitive legal operations are the most effective method to battle illicit drug sales and make cannabis commerce safe in our communities," said Matt Hawes, founder of Novel Beverage Co. and a director of the Maine Cannabis Industry Association. "Policymakers must stand by those that choose the lawful but more difficult path in our quest for market dominance.". . We're all on the same side."
Similarly, many caregivers believe that as more patients request lab results from carers, market forces will finally settle the testing argument.
"Consumers must use their purchasing power to demand whatever improvements they desire," said Calvin Akers, co-founder of the Wisely Hash Factory in Sanford. This medical provider specializes in concentrates and voluntarily tests its products. "I'm not opposed to regulation in general, but the manner [the state] proposes to apply it will impose an unsustainable economic burden."
Akers believes that in Maine, with its mix of urban and severely rural areas, a one-size-fits-all strategy is a mistake. Some areas, for example, do not have ready access to the internet, so installing security cameras that send film straight to government inspectors may demand the installation of costly new utility connections. Making such more distant surgeries more expensive would push patients and caregivers underground, he said, while also destroying the market's personal, community-oriented touch.
"If we had Massachusetts' regulatory system and expense, 90 percent of these popular artisan marijuana products would not exist," he added. "You don't need much money to follow a goal in Maine – you can establish generational riches through hard effort."
However, Akers and others acknowledged that the uncertainty generated by repeated start-stop attempts at stricter regulation is taking its toll. For example, several caregivers who began purchasing plant identification tags and inventory-monitoring software in preparation for a new product-tracking requirement were out thousands of dollars when the state suspended the law and subsequently moved to a different provider.
As the state re-starts its regulation process, some operators are already planning for acceptable concessions.
"To be honest," Hawes added, "there should definitely be some amount of regulation that goes beyond what is now implemented in the medical program but falls well short of what is currently enforced in the [recreational] market."