THE POINT

Maine’s still a long way from figuring out how legal marijuana will work

Posted May 17, 2017, at 1:57 p.m.
Last modified June 02, 2017, at 3:16 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Lewiston-based medical marijuana caregiver Andrew Starkey chose the unofficial marijuana holiday of April 20 to open his newest venture.

Starkey plans to launch an online publication this summer to fill a rising demand for answers about how Maine’s marijuana industry will work, which remains unclear in many ways.

“We’re in the dark, honestly, as much as everybody else is” at this point, Starkey said in a telephone interview.

That consternation is clear as the group of lawmakers crafting the specifics of legalization on Tuesday asked to postpone action on a raft of related bills and continued hearing input from municipalities and others.

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It’s still uncertain how much recreational growers will be charged for permits, which Starkey said is a key concern for growers considering entering the market. It’s also unclear whether the state will grant municipalities the ability to impose local taxes on sales.

Still, while that’s on hold, more marijuana-related businesses continue to enter the fray in anticipation. As of May, 10 businesses with “cannabis” in the name registered with the Maine Secretary of State’s Office this year. That’s compared with 18 for all of 2016.

Starkey’s new business, The High Ground Cannabis Journal LLC, was one of the new entrants to the market estimated to grow to $200 million in annual sales by 2020, according to industry analyst firms Arcview Market Research and New Frontier Analytics.

But the timeline for Maine’s industry stalled earlier this year through a legislative compromise pushing back parts of legalization until Feb. 1, 2018. And some municipal officials are asking lawmakers for more time.

Mark Robinson, town manager of Fayette, testified Tuesday that he remains concerned about the potency of marijuana products that would be allowed under the law. He also argued policymakers will need even more time to deal with that and other issues.

Robinson’s town voted 54 percent against legalization and was one of many towns on the fence. Almost twice as many Maine communities voted against legalization than for it.

That breakdown means municipal perspectives continue to loom large in the debate, as towns generally have questions about the interaction of their authority and the state’s, according to testimony Tuesday by Geoff Herman, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association.

For instance, what happens if towns that initially allowed marijuana businesses to operate there later decided they wished to ban them? The MMA floated a proposal to lawmakers to give businesses in such towns three years to wind down operations.

And odd problems have also emerged. The town of Sanford has set up a citizen board to handle complaints of unpleasant odors emanating from marijuana grows.

Ted Kelleher, a Portland attorney specializing in rules for highly regulated industries like brewing, distilling and marijuana cultivation, outlined five other ways the law remains unclear, including the authority municipalities have to limit all types of marijuana businesses.

Kelleher said that the law specifies a town can prohibit all commercial marijuana activities, but it doesn’t specify that a town can set a cap on cultivation facilities, testing labs or social clubs. And once a town does set those caps, the law doesn’t specify just how the towns should go about evaluating those applications.

Kelleher said many local governments aren’t equipped to evaluate applications for increasingly complex marijuana growing operations. Municipalities may need to bring in outside consultants for those tasks, Kelleher said, and it’s one reason to ask the Legislature to authorize local taxes to make up such costs for oversight, administration and enforcement.

And that’s just a sliver of what remains to be figured out under the law.

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The long process ahead for lawmakers and the industry is what has Starkey encouraged about expanding from a small caregiver business to an online publication with information about the marijuana industry, which is also an increasingly crowded arena.

“We’re trying to be a central hub for that information, especially in our state,” Starkey said.

Starkey, who supported the legalization effort after some deliberation, said he’s still concerned what will happen to marijuana caregivers as the recreational market comes online and grows.

“It’s very confusing what the future of caregivers is going to be but we are going to cover that,” Starkey said.

That business is still in a very early stage, but Starkey said it started on a serendipitous foot, registering on April 20, which he said wasn’t planned that way.

“It worked out in our favor,” he said.

 

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