Medical or recreational: Marijuana in Maine

BAR HARBOR– Even the rollout of adult use marijuana is being affected by the coronavirus.  

Maine is one of 11 states that has legalized marijuana, but the slowest to allow adult-use businesses to begin operating. Applications were accepted by the state for provisional licenses at the end of last year.  

In March, just before Governor Janet Mills issued an executive order that all non-essential businesses close, a database of the state’s first round of provisional licenses for adult-use, also known as recreational, marijuana was released.  

The first recreational sales were expected to commence before the end of March, until COVID-19 intervened. On April 10, that industry rollout was officially put on hold.  

Since it was legalized by a referendum vote in 2016, recreational marijuana has been held up by legislative rewrites, gubernatorial vetoes and hiccups with the original company hired to design a product tracking system. In the spring of 2019, an original set of rules, which numbered more than 80 pages, governing the new industry was released and, subsequently, approved by Gov. Mills in June.  

At this time, Maine is an opt-in state for both medical and recreational marijuana. Even though medical marijuana was legalized in 1999, laws for that industry changed in December 2018. Any medical marijuana retail store, cultivation or manufacturing facility operating before that date is grandfathered into being able to continue operating in towns that have not opted in.  

Otherwise, towns in Maine must opt in to allow both recreational and medical marijuana businesses to operate within their boundaries. Licensing for these businesses is a three-step process in which the state issues an initial provisional license, the municipality approves the establishment of the business according to locally drafted regulations, if they exist, and, finally, the state issues a license to operate.  

Medical marijuana caregivers are the only related business exempt from this process. Municipalities cannot regulate the number of caregivers operating within their jurisdiction, whether the town has opted in or not.  

Caregivers must register with the state and are legally allowed to cultivate more than 100 plants – up to 36 flowering and 72 vegetative – if the caregiver is also a patient. They can supply up to 2.5 ounces at a time to holders of medical marijuana cards, but no longer need to be specifically designated as a card holder’s caregiver. Visitors to Maine, who hold medical marijuana cards from other states where it is legal, can purchase up to 2.5 ounces in a 15-day period. 

Regulations around adult-use marijuana are much stricter than those in the medical industry. As part of its rollout, Maine is implementing a seed-to-sale tracking system that does just that. Information is recorded from the point of seed through cultivation and harvesting, as well as testing, before it can be sold to a consumer who is 21 years of age or older.  

All adult-use marijuana products must be tested before they can be sold to the public. Maine is the only state that does not require medical marijuana sold here to be tested. At this time, there are several testing facilities vying for a license in Maine, but only one, in Kennebunk, that is testing medical marijuana products through a contract with dispensaries or caregivers.  

Other states have experienced a backlog in testing products in a timely enough fashion to have them available for sale. Officials of the Office of Marijuana Policy, created to address these industries, are waiting to have enough testing facilities, or labs, licensed in order to provide product for several recreational retail businesses before they launch in order to avoid an onslaught of product to only a small number of stores.  

Maine lawmakers did write flexibility into the state’s marijuana laws to allow for the waiver of testing rules if the state failed to attract enough testing labs at the start of the market to conduct all mandatory state tests. Although there are testing facilities in New Hampshire, transporting marijuana across state lines equates to a federal drug trafficking charge, which eliminates labs there as an option for Maine businesses.  

Packaging for adult-use products must clearly exhibit information about the product inside, the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) it contains and, for most products, be childproof. Public consumption of marijuana, even by those of legal age, is prohibited in the state, which includes inside a vehicle.  

Ingesting marijuana before operating a motor vehicle falls under similar laws as consuming alcohol. Currently, there is no official way to test the level to which a driver is under the influence of marijuana other than behavioral cues. 

Since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, potential businesses will struggle to find financial institutions that are willing to work with them. Banks and most credit unions are federally insured and require paperwork that alerts the federal government each time a transaction is made by a marijuana business. Most banks don’t want to be bogged down by that, and many businesses don’t want the extra steps, and that leaves them vulnerable because of the cash market in which they operate.  

While the state’s rules are lengthy, each municipality is encouraged to design amendments to their land-use ordinance to regulate via zoning or licensing regulations specific to them in order to retain a level of local control. Unless specified by either of these modes, enforcement of laws, rules and regulations falls to the state statutes in place. 

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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