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Business and Economy

Wellness Connection Begins Transition From Medical Marijuana To Adult-Use Markets

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Robert F. Bukaty
/
Associated Press
In this Dec. 13, 2019 photo a marijuana plant grows under artificial light at an indoor facility in Portland, Maine.

Maine’s largest medical marijuana retailer, Wellness Connection, is currently converting its South Portland store from a medical marijuana dispensary to a recreational marijuana retailer.

It’s also beginning the process of changing its name to HighNorth Maine Cannabis.

Managing Director Charlie Langston spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about these transitions.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: First of all, what is this change is going to mean for the South Portland store?

Langston: There’s not much change other than you don’t need a medical card to get in.

Was it always the plan at some point to shift one or more of your locations to the retail market?

The plan was always to be able to provide cannabis to everybody who wants it. What happened is the law that we passed prohibited you from having both medical and adult use in the same storefront. So essentially, that law made the decision for us. Otherwise, you’d have to duplicate all of your stores and all of the systems, and that really made it untenable.

Does this mean that eventually your other three locations will be converted as well?

Eventually yes. That’s a process that takes awhile due to the licensing. And also because, before we switch them all, we want to be sure we have all of our products that we carry in medical available in the adult-use market.

Can you talk a little bit about what the regulatory difference is between when you were operating as a medical marijuana dispensary, and now when you’ll be operating as a retail store.

A lot of the changes are things that we were already doing. So in medical, there’s no testing requirements. We had been testing all along, but that is a requirement in adult use. So testing for efficacy and safety, very important things. There’s a lot more excise tax in the adult use. And that definitely contributes to the change in pricing. The biggest change really is just in access.

As you mentioned, eventually you will convert your other three locations. I mean, does that kind of guarantee that your current medical marijuana customers will eventually be facing that increase in price?

The rollout has been complicated, obviously, by COVID-19. So the predictability wasn’t there, people didn’t know exactly when licenses would be issued or how that would happen. Eventually, those two prices both in medical and adult use will be almost the same. Certainly, the Office of Marijuana Policy right now is working hard on bringing some of the systems that they put in place for adult use into medical, so they’re going to be introducing testing requirements for medical, they’ll certainly be introducing track and trace, they won’t have the same taxes in medical. But a lot of the requirements that make adult use more expensive as an operator are going to be coming to medical within the next year, I believe.

As we’ve heard and reported on, at the very beginning of the rollout of retail marijuana sales, there were shortages of products, in part because it was taking a long time to license the cultivators and especially the testing operation. Do you have any sense when that will ease, when the state will kind of catch up?

Fortunately, testing does not seem to be a bottleneck right now. Really, the bottleneck is the number of cultivators with active licenses. Part of the reason that we didn’t open on Day One was because we didn’t have a good supply in place. And we wanted to make sure that we didn’t run into that problem. I think as more and more cultivators come online, that’s going to be the case for everybody.

Do you expect your business to grow as you make the conversion?

The biggest factor there is tourists. Maine has 1.3 million residents. Those are the people that could get a medical card in Maine and shop in Maine. Outside of that, we have close to 40 million tourists annually.

Do you know how long it’ll take you to finish the conversion of the four stores and be an entirely retail operation?

Probably over the course of a year or so. We haven’t given up hope on the Legislature to reconsider about allowing both medical and adult use in the same store. That’s done commonly in other states.

And that would presumably address some of the price issues that we’ve been talking about too.

Absolutely.

Are there any other changes you’d like to see the Legislature make in the retail regime that has been laid out?

Yes, one particular one stands out. So the Legislature is really hard and fast on the idea that no one can step foot into the building before they present an ID that shows that they’re 21. We really would appreciate if we could have a reception area inside so people don’t need to line up in the rain or snow, and we could verify that inside the door.