In this Dec. 13, 2017, file photo, a marijuana plant grows under artificial light at an indoor facility in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — As recreational marijuana sales begin across Maine, medical marijuana stores have to decide whether to hold on to protections only provided to the medical industry or expand their clientele by going recreational.

Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy began issuing licenses for recreational cannabis businesses starting on Tuesday, with sales permitted on Oct. 9. One could expect newer medical marijuana businesses to be itching to go recreational, allowing anyone over 21 to purchase their products rather than only people with medical marijuana certification — popularly known as a medical marijuana card.

Yet the decision is far more complicated than that, especially as sales begin during the COVID-19 pandemic. The choices of existing businesses — along with prospective marijuana companies — will ultimately decide the fate of Maine’s new recreational cannabis industry.

Two medical marijuana shops opened on Presque Isle’s Main Street on Sept. 1: Star City Wellness and Full Bloom Cannabis. Management of each disagrees on the merits of going recreational.

Joe Pelkey — who owns Star City Wellness with Chase Norton — said he fears that a COVID-19 outbreak could halt his new business in its tracks. He sees more safeguards for a business that exclusively operates with what are legally medical substances.

“If this COVID starts kicking up again, and they shut the recreational down, I’ll be done,” Pelkey said. “If I stay medical, they won’t shut the medical down because they are deemed essential.”

In March, the Office of Marijuana Policy announced that medical marijuana businesses were deemed an essential service, allowing them to stay open throughout the pandemic and avoid many of the most stringent regulations put on other businesses across the state.

Given that a recreational cannabis shop has not yet opened in Maine, it is unclear if they would be deemed essential and be allowed to operate if such regulations were implemented again. States that permit recreational marijuana have differed in their responses to recreational sales during the pandemic, but medical marijuana stores have generally had fewer restrictions.

Pelkey said he would be interested in acquiring a recreational marijuana license after the pandemic — he expects approval to be relatively easy given that Presque Isle’s marijuana ordinance allows those with medical marijuana licenses to exchange their medical license for a recreational one after filing an application and paying a fee.

Still, he doesn’t expect the medical label to affect his sales, as medical marijuana certifications are simple to attain in Maine — his store staff will even assist customers who want one.

But Full Bloom Cannabis President and CEO Steven Rusnack has another perspective. He hopes to sell recreational marijuana at his location in Presque Isle as soon as possible and has already sent an application to the state.

Rusnack — by now a veteran of Maine’s young cannabis industry after opening Full Bloom Cannabis stores in Fort Kent and Grand Isle — said he was unsurprised about the announcement from the state they would begin issuing recreational licenses.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Rusnack said. “The state of Maine and its people have been waiting for almost four years now.”

There is practically no difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana businesses, though legal marijuana and its derivative THC products will likely be more expensive for tax reasons, Rusnack said.

Yet, he said recreational sales would open sales up to new groups of people who might not stop in otherwise, including those who may want to avoid scrutiny from their employer or when purchasing a firearm. Under federal law, people who use marijuana and other federally illegal drugs cannot own a firearm. While enforcement is rare, it has occurred in Maine.

Rusnack said he had wanted to expand to the Presque Isle area since he opened his store in Fort Kent four years ago. Operating in the largest city in Aroostook County with a location on Main Street would allow the business ample access to new customers.

Whether it is through medical or eventually recreational sales, he said he looks forward to providing residents the company’s products. Many of them — including THC-infused blueberry honey — are created at a facility run by the business in Grand Isle.

“I think most about providing the best medicine possible to the most amount of people that we can,” Rusnack said.

Northern Maine Flower, which was the first medical marijuana shop to be approved and open in Presque Isle, did not respond to multiple attempts for comment.

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