YARMOUTH, Maine — Sean Wyatt’s mother suffered from grand mal epilepsy. Her seizures were so intense, her collarbone once shattered and ripped through her skin.
But when she began using medical marijuana in 2009, after voters passed the Maine Medical Marijuana Act, Wyatt witnessed the drug’s therapeutic effects.
He also saw an opportunity.
Wyatt, who was studying business at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, registered with the state as a medical marijuana primary caregiver, a designation that enables individuals to grow and process the plant and distribute it to several patients. He hooked up with Kennebec Healing, a co-op of caregivers, and spent the next few years honing his craft.
Now, Wyatt is striking out on his own. Under the name New England Alternative Care, he plans this spring to open his own establishment in a business park off East Elm Street, the first primary care facility housed in a commercial property in Yarmouth.
There are between 600 and 800 registered primary caregivers in Maine, according to estimates. Hundreds of them serve the greater Portland area. Despite their misleading title, they are not physicians.
Each one can serve up to five patients, and those patients can purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every 15 days. Caregivers can maintain up to six flowering plants (and 12 additional vegetative plants) per patient.
Many caregivers grow in their homes. Wyatt is among those who have opted to lease a commercial space for safety and practical reasons: The lamps used for growing can be a fire hazard, and the humid conditions the plants require can lead to mold, structural warping and home depreciation.
Primary care facilities are not open to the public. They’re not retail stores or dispensaries, of which there are only eight across the state. No one — including people with a doctor’s recommendation for use of marijuana, the equivalent of a prescription — can walk into such a facility, residential or commercial, and buy anything.
Rather, patients schedule a time for home delivery, and caregivers can deliver anywhere in the state.
Wyatt said dispensaries can’t compete with the nature of the relationships formed between primary caregivers and their patients.
“You’re more intimately involved with your patients because you know their background,’ he said. “You develop a one-on-one relationship and you can help them with their issues over time.”
Wyatt requested that the address of his business not be published out of concern it could become a target for thieves. Besides, he’s not looking for more customers -– he and his partner, another primary caregiver, already serve the maximum of five apiece.
If one leaves, they can fill the spot by networking with patients at trade shows, like Home Grown Maine in Bangor, or by advertising with pot-friendly medical practices like Integr8 Health in Falmouth.
Wyatt leased the space in November and said he will move his business into the facility after renovations and infrastructure improvements are complete.
Over the past few months, meanwhile, Yarmouth’s Planning Department has had a crash course in medical marijuana legalese.
Vanessa Farr, director of planning and development, said after conducting research with the Maine Municipal Association and elsewhere, she determined that Wyatt’s business is zoned correctly for its location and his proposal didn’t trigger a site plan review.
“It seems pretty straightforward when you really look at the information,” she said of the portion of the law governing primary caregivers.
Once he’s up and running, Wyatt will be growing a variety of marijuana strains, each with its own properties.
“Think of marijuana like an apple,” he said. “Take Cortland, Granny Smith, Red Delicious — very different flavor profiles, they look and taste different, but they’re all apples.”
Wyatt prides himself on using thin-layer chromatography, a chemical testing method used to determine levels of THC and other compounds in his plants. Without it, he said, you might as well be taking medicine with no dosage.
He also said he’d like to see the bar raised for caregiver registration because nearly anyone who passes a background check and can pay the fees can be certified.
And he supports more formalized testing across the industry to cut down on product contaminants like pesticides and mold. Wellness Connection, for example, which operates half the state’s dispensaries, has been fined $32,000 over the past year by the Department of Health and Human Services and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a variety of violations.
Elsewhere, he’d prefer less regulation. Federal laws that prohibit carrying pot across state lines have kept people from having access to varieties like Charlotte’s Web, a strain developed in Colorado that is thought to reduce seizures and, due to its negligible THC content, has no psychotropic effects.
He called a recent bill that would allow armed Maine drug enforcement agents to accompany DHHS inspectors on visits to caregiver facilities “not helpful.”
Growth and expansion
Looking ahead, Wyatt, who also works as a consultant for dispensaries in Boston, said he sees an industry that only stands to grow. He sees testing facilities as a future industry standard that will improve and streamline medical marijuana supplies, while creating jobs and tax revenue.
In other areas, opportunities are limited only by one’s imagination.
“You could make a bed and breakfast [inn] that donates [marijuana] to patients and is geared toward servicing people who want to come to Maine,” he said. “They’re not allowed to buy it, but they could have it donated to them, and that could be a package included in your [rate] to make it more attractive.
“Offer people marijuana-infused foods. You could have a restaurant that would cater to medical patients,” he continued. “They’re talking about recreational [legalization] in Portland. They’ve been talking about that for the last couple years. That would open up a whole other set of things that could happen in the state.”
Still, Wyatt hasn’t forgotten what drew him to this industry in the first place.
His mother no longer has seizures and is off prescription medication. And he described another patient, one of his first, who died from bone cancer. The man was taking huge amounts of morphine and oxycodone; he used medical marijuana to cut his opioid use almost in half.
“It helped ease him into passing away,” Wyatt said. “He was told he had six months to live. He lived a year and a half. He said he was very comfortable up until the end.”
Wyatt said he realizes his business could face some public backlash, but he’s not worried.
“I can understand where they’re coming from, I can understand ‘not in my backyard,’” he said.
“But it’s something that people have voted on, and the majority decided they want it in the state. It’s something that isn’t going to be hurting the environment, isn’t going to be impacting Yarmouth itself. It’s something that’s helping people.”