Three years, four months, and six days after Maine voters passed a ballot measure to legalize adult-use cannabis in November 2016, the state’s first batch of conditional licenses for cannabis businesses have finally been issued. State regulators expect retail sales to begin this summer.
A total of thirty one conditional licenses will go to sixteen cannabis stores, ten cultivation facilities, four product-manufacturing facilities, and one nursery. But Mainers can’t just drive down the road to a local shop just yet—a retail launch date has not been set, and a series of steps that business owners must take before they open their doors to the public still remain.
“It’s about a year delayed,” said David Carr, co-owner of Coast 2 Coast Extracts in Portland, which already serves the medical market in Maine. He moved from Colorado to Maine in 2017, and expects to receive three conditional licenses—for retail, manufacturing, and cultivation. “You know, that’s really the only reason I moved out here, was for the adult use market. But it was in hopes of transitioning into the adult use market very, very shortly after the move, and it’s taken a while for sure.”
So why the long delay?
It began with an anti-cannabis governor: The governor at the time, Paul LePage, vetoed bills to regulate and tax marijuana in 2017 and 2018, effectively stalling the program from moving forward substantively. Also, the Maine legislature voted to delay sales until two years after the referendum passed, and rewrote implementation legislation twice. Add to this no set start date for sales, as some ballot measures have done, and the adult use program launch was bound to be postponed.
Erik Gundersen, Director of Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy—the agency that was set up in February of 2019 within the Department of Administrative and Financial Services by Governor Janet Mills’ administration to oversee Maine’s adult-use program—pointed out that these obstacles arose before their role in rulemaking for the adult use program had even begun.
“There were the two legislative rewrites, two governor’s vetoes, and we were really left with a blank slate when we were established,” Gundersen told Cannabis Wire.
With Mills in office, starting in January of 2019, the establishment of the adult use program began in earnest. The Office of Marijuana Policy drafted around eighty pages of regulations in a matter of weeks, and reviewed seventy licensing applications over the course of a month and a half, according to state regulators.
Still, this process was complex in a state with a large rural population and multiple factions advocating for different approaches.
One sticking point was the mandatory testing of cannabis samples in the adult use program. But to require the few existing cannabis testing labs to take on sample collection themselves proved tricky. “Maine is a huge state. So geography was a challenge, considering we have applicants in all corners of the state,” said Gundersen. “Most of the prospective testing facilities were in Southern Maine, and we can’t force anybody to go anywhere to collect samples.”
The Office of Marijuana Policy settled on letting licensees deliver their own samples. To protect the integrity of the self-sampling process, Gundersen said, the Office put in place fines for noncompliance and audits to ensure correct sampling protocol. Nelson Analytical, ProVerde Laboratories, and Nova Analytic Labs are among the testing outfits that are expected to be certified and begin actively testing within the next few months, Gundersen said.
Another hurdle for business owners is that local municipalities can choose whether to “opt in” to the adult use program, versus having to opt out. In other legal cannabis states, opt-in clauses have been an effective tool in getting hesitant lawmakers on board with legalization, but they’ve also created a patchwork industry as what is allowed changes from one zip code to the next.
“A big pain point for our industry is the requirement for the municipal opt-in, and that has really slowed the process,” Matt Hawes, a founding board member of the Maine Cannabis Industry Association, and owner of Seaworthy, a consumer cannabis goods line, told Cannabis Wire. He added that he is curious to see how municipalities who haven’t opted in will react as they “see the industry grow by setting a good example and being good neighbors, which I believe is what our operators in Maine are well positioned to do.”
The Office of Marijuana Policy expects retail sales to begin around June—after active licenses are issued (in April, the Office anticipates), testing labs are established for adult use, conditional licensees have been authorized by their municipalities, and stores have time to stock their shelves and get their updated plans approved.
Hannah King, an attorney and a member of Maine’s Marijuana Advisory Commission, which advises the state legislature on cannabis law, said the group’s most recent recommendation to Maine legislature is to prioritize only the most pressing issues.
“Unless there are changes that are critical, either to getting the adult use marijuana program up and running, or to protect public health and safety, the recommendation was that the legislature kind of leave those programs as they are and then take on more drastic substantive changes next session,” she told Cannabis Wire.