The month of August has been a productive one for the Maine cannabis industry. After nearly four years, the Office of Marijuana Policy has declared a definitive date for the beginning of recreational sales. According to a recent OMP release, qualifying businesses will first be granted licenses on September 9th and the first sales will take place a month later on October 9th. Given the state’s historically poor track record, confidence in the initial rollout is minimal; in addition to anger over unrealistic guidelines, there are further concerns regarding what the introduction of recreational sales means for the medical community.
As seen with other state’s markets, namely nearby Massachusetts’ who in the Fall of 2019, began their adult-use market after nearly 3 years of waiting, recreational sales quickly became the state’s main interest due to the massive influx of revenue. In Massachusetts, this led to their dispensaries shifting focus away from providing an enjoyable patient experience to primarily selling recreationally, but at a premium price and heavily taxed.
Given their proximity and the similarities between the tenuous timeline of both Massachusetts’ and Maine’s recreational markets, many of those in the Maine cannabis community fear a similar transition. In it’s nearly two decades of existence, the medical marijuana industry in Maine has gained recognition for it’s dedicated cultivators and extractors who continue to push the limits of what is possible with cannabis. This concept, come to be known as “craft cannabis” emphasizes locally-sourced, clean, high-quality medical marijuana that exists to benefit patients, not to maximize profits. High-powered, out-of-state corporations such as Curaleaf Holdings, now the largest cannabis company in the world, dominate the Massachusetts’ marijuana markets. With their health violations, low quality product, and steep prices, Curaleaf and other corporations have established a clear interest in profits over patients, a decision which continues to attract out-of-staters to Maine.
The Wellness Connection of Maine, the state’s largest marijuana company, has earned a similar reputation as outsiders who come to take advantage of a budding market. The Wellness Connection themselves have a history of health and safety infringements, including OSHA violations and the use of illegal pesticides. Subsequently, they also are widely recognized as offering subpar products compared to the large network of caregivers who supply most of the states’ patients. Yet, despite their obvious shortcomings, the Wellness Connection continues to wield massive influence on Maine’s marijuana legislature.
Also in August news, the licensing residency lawsuit filed by the city of Portland, which sought to reinstate the original statewide retail legislature which favored Maine companies over those from out of state, but on a city-specific level, reached an unfortunate conclusion. On August 14th, federal judges ruled in favor of the Delaware-based Wellness Connection, who again successfully argued against the residency ordinance on the basis that it violated the constitutional principle of equality among citizens of all states. This latest decision is yet another setback for recreational hopefuls, both those wishing to enter the market themselves or simply patronize it.
With hope of locally-favorable legislature being more or less diminished, the next step in pushing back against the current guidelines is to remove the cap on recreational storefronts in Portland. The state’s most populous urban center, the city has a limit of twenty allotted retail licenses; with locals losing out on any favorable advantage and the Wellness Connection’s continuous efforts to create the rules rather than play by them, many feel as the number is far too restrictive and will disproportionately affect smaller operations. In addition to supplying Mainers with quality cannabis, an important element of the original legislature was that those doing so would be Mainers, and the existing cap on recreational storefronts in Portland has the potential to ensure the retail landscape be made up of mainly out-of-state suppliers.
Currently, Portland has been barred from issuing any licenses until the ongoing legal issues with the Wellness Connection have been resolved. While not exactly promising news in itself, this delay may spare the city from the issues that are likely to accompany the initial rollout of recreational sales. With licensees given only a month between being approved and when sales are set to begin, many see the current timeline as impractical and likely to see change before sales actually take place. While Portland may have avoided a potential problem for the time being, there is no denying that the longer hopeful licensees wait, the more money that is sunk into businesses that have yet to open. For some, this has been occurring for years; with the Maine cannabis community consisting of many relatively small cultivators, the continuous waiting is manageable only by those with large, out-of-state-funded coffers, and locals continue to struggle against the Wellness Connection’s grasp on the budding recreational market.