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Business and Economy

Arrest of alleged leader in Maine marijuana scheme sheds light on industry that resists stronger oversight

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Sawyer Loftus
/
BDN
Lucas Sirois exits the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Bangor after his first court appearance on charges related to an alleged conspiracy to use medical marijuana grow houses in western Maine to illegally sell $13 million of the drug in and out of Maine.

Allegations that a licensed caregiver in Maine’s medical marijuana industry sold $13 million in marijuana illegally are drawing attention to recent actions by the Maine Legislature to stop new rules that would have more closely tracked medical marijuana sales.

Current and former cops, a prosecutor, a town manager and a former selectman are among 13 people charged in a massive operation that allegedly orchestrated the illegal sale of $13 million worth of medical marijuana grown in western Maine to those outside the medical marijuana program both in Maine and outside the state.

The allegations in federal court came to light months after the state’s Office of Marijuana Policy proposed regulations to more closely track the flow of medical marijuana plants from “seed to sale.”

About six months after the office proposed those regulations, more than two-thirds of lawmakers voted in June to effectively stop them and require that the office consult with medical marijuana caregivers and patients before changing regulations. The vote also made most future medical marijuana regulations from the office subject to approval from the Legislature.

Members of the industry and its advocates dispute that the western Maine marijuana ring allegedly run by Lucas Sirois of Farmington showcases wider corruption in Maine’s medical marijuana industry, which features over 3,000 caregivers as of 2020 and tens of thousands of patients.

But Scott Gagnon, who is the public health representative for the Legislature’s Marijuana Advisory Commission, disagrees. He said the charges are likely indications of more illegal activity in Maine’s medical marijuana industry. He believes those activities can easily go undetected due to lax regulations that have existed since the industry was expanded in 2009.

“It’s been weakly regulated at best,” Gagnon said. “The ingredients are all there for this to be able to happen.”

The marijuana in the complex operation was allegedly sold to many who were not involved in Maine’s medical marijuana program, including bulk sales to those in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, according to court documents.

Sirois is alleged to have violated several of the state’s marijuana laws in the process, including limits on plant growth and prohibitions on caregivers operating as collectives.

Maine was one of the first states to legalize cannabis for medical reasons in a 1999 referendum. The sale and possession of the drug in any form remains illegal federally under the 1970 Controlled Substance Act, but that law isn’t enforced by the federal government when operations happen within state law.

Closer regulation of medical marijuana would have applied more oversight that could have helped to prevent illegal operations like that in Farmington, which ran from 2016 to mid-2020, according to court documents, Gagnon said.

The most important aspect of such regulation, he said, would be a “seed-to-sale” tracking system to allow state officials to see where marijuana is planted and to whom it is sold.

Such tracking policies are already in place for Maine’s recreational cannabis industry. However, when Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy proposed them as part of a larger series of regulations on Maine’s medical marijuana industry in January — which would have come after the allegations of illegal sales detailed last week in court documents — the industry responded with almost universal opposition.

They successfully lobbied for the Legislature to pass L.D. 1242, which happened in June with more than two-thirds support. It became law without Gov. Janet Mills’ signature.

The Office of Marijuana Policy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The legislation effectively halted the implementation of the office’s proposed rules and required that it consult with caregivers and patients, among other affected groups, before altering regulations on the state’s medical marijuana industry. It also ensured more input from the Maine Legislature in the rule-making process, requiring that the Legislature approve many new rules.

A medical marijuana workgroup featuring several caregivers across the state, as well as medical marijuana patients and other involved parties, has since begun meeting. Jamie Comstock, who is Health Promotion Manager for Bangor Public Health, is among the members, representing health care professionals.

Numerous caregivers and organizations — including the Maine Cannabis Coalition, Maine Craft Cannabis Association and Maine Growers Alliance — said the regulations put forward were unnecessary and burdensome.

Caregiver Melissa Parkerton of North Haven testified that it would likely drive her small operation that she runs with her husband out of business.

“This, too, makes no sense for a small, island caregiving business with 20 patients and one wholesale account,” said Parkerton, who said she supported a tiered approach that would more closely track larger businesses — a belief that other bill proponents did not share.

Rep. Lynne Williams, D-Bar Harbor, sponsored that bill and has represented many clients within the state’s marijuana industry as a lawyer. She also represents the alleged leader of the Farmington operation, Sirois, in a zoning matter that she said is unrelated to his marijuana operations.

While there are some aspects of marijuana regulations the state can tighten, what happened in Farmington is not a sign of deeper illicit activity within the industry that needs to be legislated, Williams said.

“There are bad actors in every profession,” said Williams, noting that none of those recently charged had been convicted.

Williams said her support for L.D. 1242 was more about providing legislative oversight to the Office of Marijuana Policy than stopping regulations. She said she had a bill pending for the Legislature’s upcoming session that would identify parts of the industry that need reform and would pass new rules to address those issues.

Catherine Lewis, who is chair of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine trade association, said the western Maine charges are more indicative of reforms needed at the federal, rather than state, level, especially the repeal of federal rules that make it illegal for banks to take money from the marijuana industry.

“If the federal government would take into consideration all of the states that have legalized and approved medical marijuana, and took marijuana off the scheduled listing, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Lewis said.

She does not think the track-and-trace system presented by the Office of Marijuana Policy was necessary, saying there are already strong restrictions on the amount of cannabis caregivers can grow and that such a system could violate patient privacy.

“There’s no other industry that has something like this other than a pharmacy with prescriptions that can kill you and become physically addicting,” Lewis said. “We are talking about an agricultural plant.”

Despite significant opposition from the industry to such regulations, Gagnon hopes the charges will be a wakeup call for legislators in the next session. He intends to bring up the matter when the advisory committee he sits on meets again on Nov. 9.

“When the industry gets to regulate itself, it’s never good for public health and public safety,” Gagnon said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.