SOUTHWEST HARBOR — On Tuesday, a small sign taped to the door of Meristem, the first adult-use marijuana store in Hancock County, announced, ‘We’re Open!’
In keeping with the theme of the quietside of Mount Desert Island, there were no big banners, balloons or radio station coverage to welcome new customers, and that is the way owners Tyler and Natasha Johnson wanted it. After a couple of years of working towards this day, the couple was more interested in making sure all their systems were working properly than having a line of people wrapped around the Seal Cove Road building.
“We think it is going to be high traffic,” said Tyler, in a conversation with the Islander, which took place in the intimate store space on Monday. “We just want to provide the service because it’s so long overdue… Trust me, people are asking.”
At Meristem, customers 21 years and older will be able to purchase a variety of hemp products, including those made with the marijuana plant’s flower containing THC for smoking, ingesting and using topically, as well as CBD, a product that does not contain THC unless it is added.
“Tyler’s done a lot of research to keep things as local as possible and as healthy as possible,” said Natasha.
“We’re forging what we consider to be long-term relationships,” said Tyler, about the store’s product sources. “The stuff that we’ve had in common with our producers, so far, has been pretty eerie. We have a very similar guiding light.”
As one of the business’s owners, Tyler, who has a background as a medical marijuana caregiver, is looking forward to educating customers on the many nuances of the plant beyond categorizing it as an indica or sativa.
“I think those terms are out of date,” he said. “I think that it’s far more complex than that. The fantastic thing about cannabis is that it’s individual for everyone. Everyone’s body is different. Everybody responds to different things and cannabis has, literally, endless means of addressing all of those fine points.”
“Which also makes it more complicated for the consumer,” said Natasha. “So they really have to trust where they’re going and what they’re getting. And feeling like the professionals are educated in order to help them.”
For the last four decades, Tyler’s family has owned and operated The Liquor Locker, the town’s only liquor store, which is a direct neighbor to Meristem. Experience in an age-regulated business is one of the elements that fostered a good amount of confidence from the state and local authorities.
Natasha’s family has been in Southwest Harbor for multiple generations. Her grandparents owned and ran The Moorings for many years, and her father has owned Mansell Boat Rental Company since before she was born, she said.
Well before her pursuit of carving a new course in the town’s history, Natasha’s grandfather served on the Board of Selectmen and created the town’s seal. When the couple received the letter from the town, following application review by both the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board, saying they were approved to open the town’s first legal marijuana business, seeing that seal meant a lot.
“It felt like ushering in a new industry with the support of my family,” said Natasha, “which was really humbling, honestly.”
Their journey to this point has been long and persistent. As part of the town’s Marijuana Committee, a group of people who worked to create the Marijuana Ordinance, the Johnsons attended every meeting hosted by a town board regarding the topic. Both lent information about the state’s ever-changing rules and process as they navigated that path as well.
“It’s been a very lengthy process,” said Natasha. “I feel like there are more regulations and requirements than any other industry I’ve ever been involved in… The process will really weed out, pun intended, anyone who is not committed.”
In order to operate an adult-use marijuana business in Maine, interested parties have to go through a three-step process. First is applying for a provisional license with the state. Second is finding a municipality that has agreed to opt in to having marijuana businesses and going through its application process, if one is in place. And, third, once the applicant has been approved at the local level, the state provides an active marijuana business license.
After applying to the state in October 2020, the Johnsons received their Adult-Use Marijuana license on July 1 and worked over the holiday weekend to be able to open at the beginning of this week.
While that seems like a pretty straightforward process, there were several other requirements needed at the state and local level. In order to sell edible marijuana products, the couple had to apply for a food license, which included an inspection of their facility by the health department. Selling paraphernalia in which to smoke product required the couple to obtain a tobacco license in addition to a retail license to sell anything.
“Every single one of those steps has money involved,” said Natasha, “and time.”
“We did not take on investors at all to do this,” added Tyler.
Their two employees are longtime friends and colleagues who also had to undergo hours of education to become certified to work at the store.
“Everything is so highly regulated,” said Lucas Bundy, one of Meristem’s employees. “That should give people confidence.”
Coming up with a name for the store was also a well thought out process. Tyler said he landed on Meristem because of his love of soil science and botany.
“The meristem is the growth tip of the plant,” he explained. “It had kind of a dual connotation – meri – stem. You could break it down that way as well. We wanted to be low key, happy, mellow.
“I am delighted that people don’t know what the term means. It gives me the opportunity to educate right from the start… Delving into the science side of it and teaching that to the consumer is one of the most important things that needs to happen going forward.”