AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s largest medical marijuana dispensary group is behind legislation that would allow dispensaries to sell into the state’s impending recreational market as rules for a wider distribution system are crafted.
The move could give Maine’s eight dispensaries a leg up in the new market, but it’s already being dubbed a “money grab” by a top advocate for caregivers — the home-growing rival constituency in the medical marijuana system — and a top anti-marijuana advocate also opposes it.
The proposal is another item on the Maine Legislature’s priority list for implementing the marijuana legalization law narrowly endorsed by voters in November 2016, which will take effect at January’s end and gives state regulators nine months to finalize rules for the new program.
It may take longer: Key lawmakers are already considering a moratorium on the law’s effective date as the state develops new rules around the program, which will allow Mainers to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana and give priority for recreational licenses to medical growers.
But a bill to be proposed this year by Rep. Matthew Harrington, R-Springvale, could jump that rulemaking process by allowing dispensaries to sell early. It’s being floated by the Wellness Connection of Maine, which runs dispensaries in Portland, Brewer, Bath and Gardiner.
Central to dispensaries’ argument will be their position in Maine’s medical market as large, state-licensed stores in service centers. There are more than 2,900 caregivers in Maine who are allowed to grow for up to five patients each, but they face little regulation in a disparate network of home-growing operations.
Daniel Walker, a Wellness Connection lobbyist, said while Harrington’s bill would only allow dispensaries to sell early, caregivers also could sell to dispensaries. The proposal wouldn’t stop cities and towns with dispensaries from banning recreational sale as the new law allows.
Walker said caregivers’ regulatory environment allows a “thriving gray market” for marijuana that could be exacerbated with a moratorium. He suggested that a moratorium isn’t needed, but if lawmakers enact one, they should also pass Harrington’s bill as “a safety valve, or it’s going to get a whole lot worse than it already is.”
“If we’re going to be selling, I want the safest version of the product out there,” Harrington said.
But Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine, the caregiver group that drafted the legalization initiative, said that handing monopoly control to dispensaries “even for an hour” would be against the initiative’s intent.
“It’s very concerning,” McCarrier said. “It’s just a pure money grab.”
And Scott Gagnon, the spokesman for the coalition that opposed legalization, said allowing dispensaries to sell early would “exploit some of the key flaws” in the law, including Attorney General Janet Mills’ contention that it contains a loophole that would allow children to have marijuana.
“We need to have the rules and regulations in place before anybody sells,” Gagnon said.