BANGOR, Maine — For more than 50 years, Bangor resident Gene Spearrin has plied his trade as a barber, at one time owning a chain of barbershops across the state.
Now he’s putting down his scissors to try his hand at a new entrepreneurial endeavor — the business of medical marijuana.
Over the past two months, Spearrin and daughter Ann-Dee Spearrin have worked to convert his barbershop of 12 years, Gene’s Place, into a home for two businesses, Grass Roots of Maine and Mainly Medical Marijuana.
Ann-Dee Spearrin, who manages the businesses, described Grass Roots as “a high-end head shop,” offering imported hemp seeds and hemp-infused foods, oils and salves, as well as vaping products and smoking paraphernalia. It opened its doors for the first time on Tuesday.
Mainly Medical Marijuana is an office space inside the shop where Gene and Ann-Dee Spearrin — both registered caregivers under Maine’s medical marijuana laws — meet with and dispense medical-grade marijuana to patients who have doctor-issued medical marijuana cards.
Both businesses belong to Gene Spearrin, in addition to another business he owns, Cornerstone Barber Shop on Exchange Street. He retired from barbering on May 29.
“I was just tired of cutting hair after 50 years,” he said. “And this sounded interesting and exciting, because I have friends and family who have been using cannabis to great health effect.”
The new business venture comes after Canna Care Docs, an unrelated clinic that specializes in qualifying people to use medical marijuana, expanded into Maine, opening a Bangor location just a block away.
Located at the corner of State and Harlow streets, Spearrin’s two new businesses operate independently of each other with different addresses, different telephone numbers and different sales-tax identification numbers.
While located in the same space, which once housed the barbershop, Grass Roots has a door at 32 State St. and Mainly Medical Marijuana has a door at 6 Harlow St.
Accepting patients by appointment, the medical-marijuana business is not one of the state’s eight licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.
Unlike dispensaries, which can serve an unlimited number of patients, caregivers are only allowed to have five patients each.
Additionally, caregivers are only allowed to possess six producing plants per patient and up to 2.5 ounces of prepared marijuana per patient. That means, at most, the Spearrins can have 10 registered patients at any given time.
Caregivers and dispensaries are the only commercial medical marijuana operations allowed by state law.
Dispensaries are larger scale than caregivers but face increased scrutiny from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’re on a much smaller scale than a dispensary, and I actually prefer that because you can get more personal,” said Ann-Dee Spearrin.
With fewer patients, she said, they are able to provide more customized care, helping to determine the best strain of marijuana for each patient’s condition.
Gene Spearrin said he is hopeful state law will change soon, allowing caregivers to serve more patients, but he admits the laws are murky and changing quickly.
“This is a great big gamble,” he said. “It could be a great opportunity or it could be a dud, depending on the way the laws change.”
As of Wednesday, the Spearrins said they each had one or two patient slots open.
But those numbers tend to fluctuate, they said, because some patients ask for their medical-marijuana cards back after registering as patients and purchasing product.
That reopens the slot, they said, and allows the patient to go to another caregiver or a dispensary.
According to Catherine Lewis, director of education for the trade association Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee passed on May 29 a bill from Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, that would remove the limit on the number of patients a caregiver can serve.
It awaits consideration by the House and Senate.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services is pushing the Legislature for more oversight authority of the more than 1,700 registered caregivers statewide, arguing the department has no means to enforce the laws that govern caregivers.
According to Lewis, state law prohibits caregivers from forming collectives in which caregivers “physically assist” each other with growing, cultivating or distributing medical marijuana unless they live together.
Whether two caregivers can share an office from which they dispense medical marijuana is “kind of gray area,” she said, as long as each caregiver serves his or her own patients separately.
“There’s nothing that says they can’t share an office,” she said.
The Spearrins said their off-site grow operations are separate, and they do not see each other’s patients.
“There are huge gray zones in all of this, and we’re trying to stay on the right side of all of it,” Ann-Dee Spearrin said.
Gene Spearrin said he wasn’t sure yet whether they will make more profit from the Grass Roots side or the Mainly Medical Marijuana side.
Much will depend on state law changes and whether Grass Roots’ imported hemp products prove to be popular, he said.
To become a registered caregiver able to serve the maximum five patients, they each had to to pay the state $1,231 for the year — $240 for each patient and $31 for a background check — he said.
A single patient can spend anywhere from $45 to $450 per month on medical-grade marijuana, depending on their need and the strain they choose, Spearrin said.
Hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the cannabis sativa plant, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and the store’s hemp products, which include oils for vaping and tinctures as well as hemp-infused foods and salves, are legal, even for those who do not have medical marijuana cards.
While the hemp products contain cannabidiol, which is found in marijuana, they have only trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive constituent of marijuana.
With such low levels of THC, Ann-Dee Spearrin said, it is impossible to get high on the hemp products.
Regulated as food, the hemp products are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of medical conditions.
But some distributors of the products purport they have “potential therapeutic” uses, including treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, nausea, mood disorders and migraines — though they make no claims as to efficacy of the products, encouraging consumers to sample them for taste and quality.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it is only authorized to release the names of caregivers or confirm licensure in the event of a law enforcement investigation.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.