Three Years After Voters Legalized Marijuana, Maine Develops Plan To Begin Sales

May 23, 2019

Nearly three years after Maine voters approved the legal growth and sale of adult-use marijuana, the state has finally developed a plan to begin commercial sales.

State officials hope that retail cannabis sales to adults 21 and over can begin as soon as next spring, a goal that's prompting current operators in the state's medical cannabis program — and aspiring entrepreneurs — to shape how the market will operate.

Based on the testimony at a public hearing held in Portland Thursday, creating rules that most of the interests will embrace will not be easy.

Over 100 people attended the public hearing at a hotel in downtown Portland to offer their views on a proposal that covers a lot of detail — from mandating child-resistant packaging on cannabis products to requiring employees in the fledgling businesses to have lived and paid taxes in maine for at least four years.

So far, the reaction to the draft rules among cannabis entrepreneurs could be described as mixed.

Maine Office of Marijuana Policy director Erik Gundersen (center) kicks off Thursday's public hearing in Portland on draft rules establishing the state's recreational cannabis market.
Credit Steve Mistler / Maine Public

Erin Worthing says he is grateful that state regulators are, at long last, creating a commercial marketplace after years of political and procedural roadblocks. Worthing is a cannabis caregiver from Cape Elizabeth who operates in Maine's medical program, and he told officials from Maine's Office of Marijuana Policy to work carefully, but quickly.

"For the most part I've found this willingness of the department to work with us encouraging enough that I'm willing to forego some of the nitpicking and work it out after the fact. We have to get to market. We're losing — as local producers — we're losing our advantage every day," Worthing says.

Like many others who were already operating in the medical program, Worthing saw passage of the adult-use law in 2016 as an opportunity to grow his business — an opportunity that has since stalled amid the delays in getting the new marketplace up and running.

Also sidelined are entrepreneurs and investors hoping to get a foothold in a cannabis enterprise allowed in only a handful of states that, like Maine, have legalized both adult use marijuana as well as commercial sales.

But so far the legalization effort in Maine has looked more like that of Vermont, which only legalized personal use and cultivation.

While some who testified Thursday were glad that Maine regulators were finally poised to launch marketplaces that could compete with states like Massachusetts, other retailers, including Joseph Baker of Orrington, are worried.

"First of all, everyone else come up here with platitudes. I got none for ya," Baker says.

Baker joined a handful of other caregivers who say the proposed rules, packaging requirements and regulations — such as keeping medical and recreational sales separate — are overly restrictive, and could cost them the business they already have.

"You claim to want to protect craft cannabis. Who do you think craft cannabis is? It's the caregivers. We now have to make a choice. I've invested in a shop, Maine Street in Bangor, $300,000 in a grow, in greenhouses, and now none of that can be used for recreational and medical," Baker says.

Paul McCarrier of Legalize Maine testifies during Thursday's hearing. McCarrier told the state marijuana policy committee that the market rules should be consumer friendly and not make people feel like they're doing a drug deal when purchasing legal cannabis.
Credit Steve Mistler / Maine Public

Other caregivers like Arliegh Kraus, a grower from Knox County, say the proposed fines for violating the rules could easily be absorbed by big cultivators and retailers, but could crush smaller operators.

"If most of these proposals pass, growers and caregivers and shop owners are signing their death sentence," Kraus says.

Others who testified highlighted the conflict between smaller business owners seeking a niche in the new marketplace and those planning potentially larger operations designed to compete and dominate.

Attorney Hannah King with Maine Professionals for Regulating Marijuana worried that some licensing requirements could become public records, which could put some operators at a competitive disadvantage.

"Including required disclosures of operating agreements, management contracts, branding agreements and the like. The regulations also require the disclosure of trade secrets, such as standard operating procedures for each individual marijuana product a manufacturer intends to produce," she says.

Officials with marijuana policy office have says the rules are designed to protect public health while giving operators of all size a chance. Those same officials will have a chance to modify the rules after the public comment period ends June 2.

It will be up to the Legislature to ratify the rules, potentially as early as next month.

Updated 4:12 p.m. May 23, 2019