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Health

Maine Medical Marijuana Sales Up Nearly 50 Percent

AUGUSTA, Maine — Medical marijuana sales in Maine have jumped by nearly 50 percent over the past year, according to newly released numbers from Maine Revenue Services.

Word of the increase comes as advocates for legalizing the recreational use of the drug prepare to submit more than 90,000 signatures to get a measure on this fall’s ballot.

But supporters and opponents of legalization disagree about exactly what the jump in medicinal sales means.

First, the numbers. In 2014, licensed dispensaries reported sales of just over $16 million. Last year, sales jumped to more than $23 million. The figures, tracked by Maine Revenue Services, don’t include sales from the more than 2,000 caregivers who are allowed to grow for individual patients.

“You know, we’ve been open for about five years now,” says Becky DeKuester, co-founder of Wellness Connection of Maine, which runs dispensaries in Brewer, Gardiner, Thomaston and Portland.

DeKuester says the dramatic growth in sales has come during a period when Wellness Connection has expanded its product line.

“We’re able to offer more variety,” she says. “Dosing options that make sense for everyone — from someone who’s new to this to someone who’s, maybe, more experienced with it.”

Earlier this year, the surging demand for medical marijuana led Wellness Connection to file an application with the City of Auburn to expand the size of its growing operation there.

DeKuester thinks the state’s opiate crisis has also led some patients to look to medical marijuana, rather than prescription pills, to treat their chronic pain.

The release of the sales numbers comes at the beginning of an election year, in which marijuana is once again likely to be one of the key issues facing Maine voters. Legalization advocates say that the big spike in medical sales shows that marijuana use has gained widespread acceptance by the public.

“We now know that marijuana is safer than alcohol and has therapeutic benefits for a lot of different people for a lot of different ailments,” says David Boyer, who runs the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is collecting signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to legalize recreational cannabis use for anyone 21 years of age and older.

Sixty-one thousand signatures are required to get an initiative before voters.

“Polling looks good for legalization passing this year,” Boyer says. “We’re going to be turning in our signatures very soon. It looks like we’ve collected over 100,000 signatures.”

But a leading opponent of the legalization effort cautions against assuming that the boost in medical sales means that marijuana has gained for mainstream acceptance. Scott Gagnon is with Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine.

“The thing the dollar figure doesn’t tell us is how many people does that involve?” he says. “So we don’t know if that means if there are more patients using. Or is it a similar number of patients that are using more often?”

Gagnon says it’s likely some combination of the two. He worries that a surge in medicinal use means more people are at risk, in part, because the dispensaries don’t face the same level of oversight that prescribers of pain pills do.

Gagnon says the referendum push may also be helping to boost medicinal sales, though he cautions against concluding that the increase means the wider public is ready to embrace legalization.