June 19, 2018
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Race heats up for Maine pot purveyors

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

Seven months after voters expanded Maine’s medical marijuana laws, an intense yet secretive competition is brewing among the organizations hoping to become the first state-licensed dispensaries of the drug.

Next Friday at 2 p.m. is the deadline for would-be operators of medical marijuana dispensaries to file applications with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The applicants will be vying for eight dispensary permits as Maine becomes the latest state to create a regulated system to allow approved patients to legally acquire the drug.

Exactly how many applications will be filed with DHHS is anyone’s guess, however.

“We have no idea who is going to apply,” Lucky Hollander, director of legislative relations with DHHS, said Friday afternoon. “We don’t know who they are going to come from. We don’t know how many, and we don’t know how many in each district.”

The department’s uncertainty stems, in part, from rules barring department staff from discussing applications with organizations before Friday’s deadline. But it also appears to stem from the fact that few, if any, of the organizations hoping to get into Maine’s new, highly regulated medical marijuana dispensary business are willing to show their hands to the competition.

The lengthy and costly list of requirements dispensary operators will have to meet to qualify for a permit also have frustrated some of the supporters of the 2009 referendum expanding Maine’s medical marijuana law.

“They put this out of the hands of groups that would have been primarily based in Maine,” said Jonathan Leavitt with the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative.

The November 2009 referendum establishes a framework for regulating the nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries that can grow and distribute pot to patients. Emergency rules put in place since the referendum, as well as permanent rules under development, also establish a registration system for both medical marijuana users and caregivers.

On July 9, a DHHS panel will award a permit to one dispensary applicant within each of Maine’s eight public health districts. Permits will be granted to the applicant with the highest score based on a point system that considers more than a dozen detailed criteria, including security and quality-control plans and the strength of the application’s long-term business plan.

Would-be dispensary operators also must pay a $15,000 fee for each application. And all dispensaries must be incorporated nonprofits in Maine whose board members all reside in the state.

Ken Altshuler, a Portland attorney who represented the public on the task force that developed recommendations to implement the new law, estimated that he received more than 100 phone calls or e-mails from people expressing interest in opening a dispensary or growing marijuana.

But Altshuler said the vast majority of those calls came in December and January, months before the requirements for dispensary operators were developed. Altshuler said he still gets some calls from people seeking legal representation or advice — which he declines to give — but he believes the complex application process and regulations will reduce the number of serious contenders.

“I don’t think you are going to see a whole lot of fly-by-night applications,” Altshuler said. Instead, Altshuler believes most of the applications will come from legitimate, professional operations.

Eric Friberg of South Portland is among a group hoping to submit an application. Like other applicants, Friberg declined to disclose where his group hopes to open a dispensary due to the competitiveness of the process.

Friberg has worked as a caregiver for medical marijuana patients for the past four years, working with his fiancee as part of a nonprofit caregiver collective known as Kirsten’s Compassion. But Friberg expressed frustration about the complexity of the state’s dispensary rules, arguing they are making it difficult for Maine-based entrepreneurs to open a facility.

“My fiancee and I, we both work regular jobs and are trying to take care of our patients as best we can,” Friberg said. “It makes it very tough [to apply] when the state sets all of these regulations.”

Altshuler said the majority of calls he received were from individuals based in Maine. But the state’s new dispensary system has attracted the attention of some non-Maine organizations with experience in other states where dispensaries are legal.

Several of the anticipated applications will come from an organization known as Northeast Patients Group that would be a Maine-based spinoff of a successful medical marijuana dispensary in Berkeley, Calif.

One of the group’s directors, Tim Schick, is a Maine native who now lives in California.

Dan Walker, an Augusta attorney representing the Northeast Patients Group, said his clients’ dispensaries, if approved by DHHS, would differ from the California operation because Maine’s rules and regulations are so different. But Northeast Patients Group also has experience in the growing medical marijuana industry.

“It’s a Maine organization,” Walker said. “It’s going to have all of the benefits of coming from Maine, but with the support of 10 years of experience. Maine has never done this before, so why not use all of this experience?”

Because that new law only allows eight dispensaries statewide during the first year, it is widely believed that would-be operators will at first attempt to set up shop in Maine’s larger cities and towns. The law also limits dispensaries to one in each public health district, thereby eliminating the possibility, at least initially, of multiple operations in one town.

But the number of potential locations “open for business” to dispensaries is shrinking rapidly as elected officials in more and more towns impose moratoriums in order to develop local ordinances regulating the pot distribution facilities.

Bangor and Brewer officials, for instance, have passed 180-day moratoria on dispensaries. Orono officials are considering a similar temporary ban until laws are put in place. And officials in Portland will hold a public hearing next week on a proposed six-month moratorium, although the majority of city councilors appear to oppose the measure.

Leavitt with the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative also expressed concerns that the rules put in place since last November prevent the type of small-scale, locally owned and operated dispensaries envisioned by himself and other advocates for last year’s referendum.

But Leavitt still believes the new system will be better than the old system, where patients had to either grow their own plants, have a caregiver grow the plants or buy their medication on the black market. Under the new law, patients still have the options of growing their own plants or using a caregiver.

“It’s an improvement because, for the first time, people are actually accessing their medicine,” he said.

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