Green cannabis buds
Cured cannabis buds are displayed at Grassroots Vermont, a medicinal cannabis production facility, Dec. 7, 2018, in Brandon, Vt. Credit: Robert Layman / Rutland Herald via AP

A new law strips the state office charged with overseeing Maine’s two legal marijuana markets of the ability to independently craft new rules governing just one of those markets — the market for medical marijuana, where a state official has said there’s likely more illegal activity happening.

The new law, which took effect Saturday, means the Office of Marijuana Policy can’t act on its own to issue temporary rules governing the state’s medical marijuana market. Any proposed rules from the office regulating medical marijuana has to go through the Legislature, which can either accept, reject or modify them.

Normally, state agencies can implement many regulations without seeking the Legislature’s approval.

It’s the latest example of how the state’s medical marijuana market has avoided the level of regulation to which the recreational market is subject, even though retailers in the two markets sell essentially the same products.

Marijuana sold in the state’s recreational market — for which retail sales began in 2020 — is strictly regulated. Plants are tracked from seed to sale, employees in recreational storefronts undergo background checks and fingerprinting, and the products for sale are tested for contaminants.

None of those requirements are in place for the state’s older medical marijuana market.

Last year, after the Office of Marijuana Policy proposed a similar seed-to-sale tracking system for the medical marijuana market in an effort to prevent illegal activity, lawmakers halted the rule and stripped the office of the ability to enact most new rules on its own.

The law that took effect over the weekend built on that, stripping the office of its ability to issue new rules even temporarily.

The disparity in regulation of the two markets came to light last year after a licensed Maine medical marijuana caregiver, Lucas Sirois, was accused of illegally selling $13 million in marijuana that was ostensibly part of the state’s medical program to non-medical patients across state lines and in Maine. More than a dozen people were charged as part of Sirois’ operation, including current and former law enforcement officers, a former selectman and a former prosecutor.

The Office of Marijuana Policy’s director, Erik Gundersen, said last week there is undoubtedly more criminal activity on the medical marijuana side of the market due to the lack of oversight.

“There’s just a severe void of any transparency or accountability within the medical program, and to assume that there’s not a lot of illicit activity happening is just kind of misguided,” he said. “But we’ve continued to advocate for regulations that make sense for all stakeholder groups.”

Advocates for the medical marijuana program have resisted more stringent regulation, and they’ve founded allies in the state Legislature.

The newest law cleared the Maine House without objection, and only two state senators opposed it.

Medical marijuana advocates said the newly enacted legislation further protects patients from “burdensome” requirements and ensures their access to the plant.

The Office of Marijuana Policy declined to comment on the new law but registered its opposition in testimony it delivered to lawmakers in February that called the measure “extraordinary and unnecessary.”

Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...