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Business and Economy

High Stakes: Why Some Pot Advocates Oppose Question 1

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Susan Sharon
/
MPBN
Don Christen of Starks, Maine's best-known pot activist.

One of the big questions raised by the ballot initiative to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Maine is what effect it will have on the state’s medical marijuana program and the mom-and-pop economy it has created.

Currently, there are nearly 3,000 registered caregivers operating as small businesses and eight dispensaries growing and selling marijuana to more than 24,000 certified patients.

Supporters of Question 1 say it is designed to keep the medical program intact. But in our ongoing series, “High Stakes: How Legalizing Marijuana Will Affect Maine,” Susan Sharon reports that patients and caregivers are divided over the ballot measure and even some longtime pot legalization advocates are opposed.

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Maine is considered to have one of the most successful medical marijuana programs in the country. And right off the bat Question 1 appears to give caregivers and patients an advantage in the new marketplace.

It calls for recreational marijuana to be taxed at a higher rate than medicinal marijuana: 10 percent compared with 5.5 percent. It also suggests that certain caregivers will get priority for cultivation licenses. But for some caregivers and patients, there is more than a little skepticism that it will be beneficial for their bottom line.

“If you’re finding that this does help your mom, we actually have a tincture that we can get for you,” says Catherine Lewis from the kitchen of her Manchester home, discussing a hemp-based product that doesn’t require a prescription with one of her regular patients, Tom, who asked that we not use his last name. “It works on a lot of different things, for pain and anxiety. So have her try it. Let me know what you think.”

Tom is a veteran who says he has been prescribed half a dozen medications to treat PTSD and chronic pain over the past two years. But he says he didn’t find relief until he tried medical marijuana. He likes the privacy and convenience of having a caregiver and he’s worried about passage of Question 1.

“From what I’ve heard it’s just going to ruin the medical marijuana aspect of everything,” he says. “I think it’s fine just like it is. I don’t think we need a Colorado up here.”

The concern is that there will be more regulations, more government scrutiny, higher licensing fees and higher prices for pot. Lewis, who also serves as the board chair and director of education for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, says her members are so divided over Question 1 that the trade association has declined to take a position on it.

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Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Baggies of medical marijuana.

But speaking for herself, Lewis is opposed.

“One of the biggest fears is that caregivers are going to go away,” she says. “The way the language is written for growers in the adult-use bill is that part of the licenses will go to these larger grows, and then there will be 40 percent to the smaller grows.”

But Lewis says there's a catch: Under the terms of the bill, municipalities can choose to limit the number of retail licenses or impose moratoriums on them altogether. Her biggest fear is that caregivers will be seen as unnecessary and the medical program will sunset in a new marijuana economy dominated by big business.

Others say there are adequate protections for small growers in Question 1.

“I don’t see something that’s more favorable to the non-Walmarts of weed,” says Erin Worthing of Cape Elizabeth, a medical marijuana caregiver who not only plans to vote yes but who hopes to qualify for a recreational cultivation license.

For him, what’s attractive about Question 1 is that small businesses like his have even been given a fighting chance.

“The point of entry is accessible to all sizes of cultivators,” he says.

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Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Medical marijuana from Wellness Connection.

And Worthing says there’s never going to be another marijuana legalization measure that will do more to level the playing field.

Tom Falby of Old Orchard Beach points to Colorado as an example of where both the recreational marijuana market and the medical one are able to coexist. The number of medical marijuana cardholders has dropped off, but only by about 7 percent, according to analysis by Greenwave Advisors.

“I think that there’s a lot of assumptions that it’s one or the other, that it’s this or it’s that, but it can be both,” he says.

Falby is a caregiver and a patient who uses medical marijuana to treat complications from Lyme disease. He says he has no plans to stop growing for other patients and he remains confident that any threats to the medical program can be ironed out by the Legislature.

But some opponents aren’t taking any chances. They’re taking their grassroots message on the road to small, informal gatherings like one recently at a pub in Stoneham.

“I would not consider it legalization in any sense of the word. Any criminal penalties that are currently in place right now will still be in place if Question 1 passes,” says Hillary Lister, who has been an advocate for medical cannabis and hemp for the past decade.

Lister helped gather signatures for Maine’s medical marijuana initiative in 2009. She sees Question 1 as creating more barriers for caregivers, putting many of them out of business.

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Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Pot plants.

“One of the major pieces of this legislation is a canopy cap. It’s an 800,000-square-foot canopy cap for recreational cultivation of cannabis. The only other state that has had a canopy cap in its bill has been Washington state,” she says.

And Lister says the result in Washington is that medical growers are now required to get a recreational license or shut down their operations and track their production from seed to point of sale. On top of that, a patient registry has been created.

Lister doesn’t see the need for more regulation or disruption of the medical marijuana program when Maine is already so close to legalization. The operator of Maine’s largest medical marijuana dispensary takes a different view.

“I think we’re in favor of legalization because we believe this would be a way to provide more access to people who, as of now, do not have access to it,” says Patricia Rosi, the CEO of Wellness Connection, which serves 13,000 patients in four locations in Maine.

Rosi says patients who suffer from migraines or insomnia, conditions that aren’t currently included in the medical marijuana program, could improve the quality of their lives with that access. She says the recreational marijuana market here is estimated at between $200 million and $300 million, so there’s plenty of room for everyone.

“We will never leave our patients behind, but do we want to be part of whatever becomes this industry at large? Absolutely,” she says.

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Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Strains of medical marijuana offered by Wellness Connection.

“In all actuality it says ‘legalize marijuana,’ and I love that, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t, and it’s chicanery. It’s a lie,” says 63-year-old Don Christen of Starks, Maine’s best-known pot activist.

Christen has advocated for legalization for more than two decades, spent nearly two years in jail on possession, cultivation and trafficking charges and this spring smoked a joint on the Somerset County Superior Court steps to celebrate the cannabis counterculture’s favorite holiday: April 20.

Yet Christen won’t support Question 1 because it doesn’t allow people like him to expunge their felony convictions for growing pot, and because he thinks it creates a system of winners and losers.

“When you put a law in place that limits the amount of people that can participate in the law, then people that aren’t eligible are just going to say, ‘We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do,’” he says.

And Christen says based on his experience, what they’re gonna do will probably be illegal.

To read the rest of the series "High Stakes: How Legalizing Pot Could Affect Maine," click here.